Why does California need setbacks?
A new bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), AB345, seeks to establish a minimum setback distance of 2,500′ between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, and playgrounds. A setback distance for oil and gas development is necessary from a public health standpoint, as the literature unequivocally shows that oil and gas wells and the associated infrastructure pose a significant risk to the communities that live near them.
FracTracker Alliance conducted a spatial analysis to understand the impact a 2,500’ well setback would have on oil and gas expansion in California. In a previous report, The Sky’s Limit California (Oil Change Internal, 2018), Fractracker data showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites. At the time it was estimated that 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.
This does not bode well for Californians, as a recently published FracTracker literature review found that health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas development include cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms. Studies also showed that health impacts increased with the density of oil and gas development, suggesting that health impacts are dose dependent. Living closer to more oil and gas sites means you are exposed to more health-threatening contamination.
An established setback is therefore necessary to alleviate some of these health burdens carried by the most vulnerable Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Health assessments by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and studies on ambient air quality near oil fields by Occidental College Researchers support the assumption that 2,500′ is the necessary distance to help alleviate the harsh conditions of degraded air quality. Living at a distance beyond 2,500′ from an oil and gas site does not mean you are not impacted by air and water contamination. Rather the concentrations of contaminants will be less harmful. In fact studies showed that health impacts increased with proximity to oil and gas, with associated impacts potentially experienced by communities living at distances up to 9.3 miles (Currie et al. 2017) and 10 miles (Whitworth et al. 2017).
Assembly Bill 345
This analysis assesses the potential impact of State Assembly member Al Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 345 on California’s oil and gas extraction and production. Specifically, AB345 establishes a minimum 2,500’ setback requirement for future oil and gas development. It does not however directly address existing oil and gas permits.
The bill includes the following stipulations and definitions:
- All new oil and gas development, that is not on federal land, are required to be located at least 2,500′ from residences, schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, hospitals, or health clinics.
- In this case the redrilling of a previously plugged and abandoned oil or gas well or other rework operation is to be considered new oil and gas development.
- “Oil and gas development” means exploration for and drilling production and processing of oil, gas or other gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons; the flowlines; and the treatment of waste associated with that exploration, drilling, production, and processing.
- “Oil and gas development” also includes hydraulic fracturing and other stimulation activities.
- “Rework operations” means operations performed in the well bore of an oil or gas well after the well is completed and equipped for production, done for the purpose of securing, restoring, or improving hydrocarbon production in the subsurface interval that is the open to production in the well bore.
- The bill does not include routine repairs or well maintenance work.
Figure 1. Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites. The map below shows the oil and gas wells and permits that fall within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites. Summaries of these well counts and discussions of these well types are included below as well.
Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites
The California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has just released their 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment, which used FracTracker’s data and mapping to assess environmental equity in the state regulation of oil permitting and drilling. The report issued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) a failing grade of ‘F’. According to the report, “DOGGR is aware that the proposed locations of many drilling activities are in or near EJ communities, but approves permits irrespective of known health and safety risks associated with neighborhood drilling.”
FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County shows the following:
- There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
- Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
- Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%) vs 13.1% for the rest of the state.
For more information on the breakdown of Kern County wells, see our informational table, here.
Using freshly published Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) data (6/3/19), we find that there are 9,835 active wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, representing 13.1% of the total 74,775 active wells in the state.
There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 total idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if the wells require reworks to restart or ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather operators are just avoiding the costs of plugging and properly abandoning the wells. To learn more about this issue, see our recent coverage of idle wells here.
Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 (7.8%) are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone.
Getting a count of plugged wells within the setback distance is more difficult because there is not a complete dataset, but there are over 30,000 wells in areas with active production that would be blocked from being redrilled. In total there are 122,209 plugged wells listed in the DOGGR database.
We also looked at permit applications that were approved in 2018, including permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. This may be the most insightful of all the analyses.
Within the 2018 permit data, we find that 4,369 permits were approved. Of those 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback. Of the permits 25% were for new drilling, 73% were for reworks, and 2% were for deepening existing wells. By county, 42% were in Kern, 24% were in Los Angeles, 14% in Ventura, 6% in Santa Barbara, 3% in Fresno, and 2% or less in Glenn, Monterey, Sutter, San Joaquin, Colusa, Solano, Orange and Tehama, in descending order.
In LA, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of activities at well sites, including stimulations and reworks. These data points are reiterative of the “permits” discussed above, but the dataset is specific to the SCAQMD and includes additional activities. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 incidences were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling. We are not sure where gravel packing falls, in reference to AB345.
A major consideration is that this rule may force many active wells into an idle status. If the onus of plugging wells falls on the state, these additional idle wells could be a major liability for the public. Fortunately AB1328 recently defined new idle well rules. The rules entice operators to plug and abandon idle wells. If rule 1328 is effective at reducing the stock of idle wells, these two bills could complement each other. (For more information on idle wells, read FracTracker’s recent analysis, here: https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/idle-wells-are-a-major-risk/)
State Bill 4 Well Stimulation Reporting
We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of CA State Bill 4 (SB4), the 2013 bill that set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. Since 2016 operators have been required to secure special permits to stimulate wells, which includes hydraulic fracturing and several other techniques. To learn more about this state regulation read FracTracker’s coverage of SB4. From January 1, 2016 to April 1, 2019, there have been 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback in 2018.
Support for AB345
After being approved by the CA Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a 7-6 vote, the bill did not make it up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the 2019 legislative session. The bill was described by the committee as “promising policies that need more time for discussion.” AB345 is now a two-year bill in the state Senate and will be reconsidered by the committee in January of 2020. The Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Lorena Gonzalez, indicated her general support for the policy and committed to working with the author to find a way to move the bill forward at the end of the session.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Feature image by David McNew, Getty Images