California is Frack Free, for the Moment

November 18, 2019 / in  / by 

Hydraulic fracturing and acidizing, stimulation techniques regulated in California under the umbrella term “well stimulation,” have been placed on a temporary moratorium in California! This is a major win, given that the use of these techniques put frontline communities at elevated risk for cancer, congenital defects, asthma and other health effects.

According to the California Geologic Energy Management Division (GEM) website, the regulator has not issued a permit to stimulate a well since June 28, 2019. This was just before Governor Newsom was confronted with the July, 2019 FracTracker Alliance/Consumer Watchdog release showing that the rate of hydraulic fracturing had doubled during his first six months in office.

As a follow up to the July report on the accelerated rate of well permitting, we have again analyzed permitting data in California and updated our analysis to compare permitting of oil and gas wells under current Governor Newsom’s administration to the last year of former Governor Brown’s administration (2018). The permitting data has now been broken down by well type, and permits for drilling new wells have been separated from permits authorizing reworks of existing wells. The new press release with updated figures through November, 2019 can be found on the Consumer Watchdog website. Additionally, we have created a map of all well permits in California approved in 2018 vs 2019 that can be found on the website

To confirm that there was actually a pause in permitting rather than a lapse in reporting, we filed a Public Records Request to GEM (formerly DOGGR) requesting stimulation permits that may have been issued since June 28th. The response from a legal analyst with the California Department of Conservation read:

“I checked with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the last well stimulation permit issued was on June 28, 2019. There has been no permit issued since that date.”

Hydraulic fracturing and acidizing have been used in California for decades, threatening the climate and the public health of frontline communities. This is a welcome halt in permitting, and we hope that Governor Newsom will double down on this trend away from harmful fossil fuel extraction.

Permitting New Wells

While the regulatory body under Governor Newsom has, for the moment, stopped permitting well stimulations, permits for new oil and gas wells and permits to rework existing oil and gas wells continue to be issued. Not only that, they continue to be issued at a rate faster than under former Governor Brown during 2018, his last year in office. The graph below shows the counts of new well permits and permits for reworks of existing wells, 2018 vs 2019. A spatial analysis of the permit locations shows that about 13% of new wells permitted each year are within 2,500’ of a school, hospital, home, daycare, or nursing; a distance identified by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health to put frontline communities at risk of exposure to carcinogens and other air toxics from oil and gas operations.

Figure 1. Time Series of Graph of Permits. The graph shows the permitting of oil and gas wells in California, 2018 vs 2019. Permits issued in 2019 currently outpace permits issued in 2018.

The data for this chart and a breakdown of permit counts by well types can be found in the table below. The table separates oil and gas production (OG) wells from enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells. Production wells pump the oil to the surface. These are the specific sites of extraction. These sites can present immediate public health threats by degrading regional air quality with hydrocarbon emissions from the wellhead, gathering lines, and surrounding infrastructure. The surrounding infrastructure may include EOR wells, which dispose of wastewater and provide support to production wells increasing the rate and volume of oil produced. They do this by injecting steam and water into the low-quality heavy crude produced in California in order to decrease the viscosity and push it towards the bottom-holes of the production wells. It requires an extreme amount of energy to accomplish this, so these operations are considered energy intensive. Injection wells present a particular threat to groundwater aquifers, representing their own toll on climate change.

Table 1. Permits issued in 2018 and 2019. The table provides a breakdown of permit types issued in 2018 and 2019.

Results show that compared to 2018, permits issued between January 1 and the first week of November 2019 have increased 17.2% for all new drilling permits, including a 15.3% increase for drilling new oil and gas production wells, and 18.2% increase for drilling new enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and other support wells. Rework permits (including sidetracks and deepening operations) have increased 1.0% overall, including a 19.6% increase for reworks of oil and gas production wells. Only reworks of EOR and support wells have decreased (-21.6%).


While Newsom’s halt on issuing hydraulic fracturing and acidizing permits is promising for the climate and community health, the real threat continues to expand in California. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted in increasing numbers near schools, hospitals, and next to homes in frontline communities. Only setbacks and an end to drilling can reduce the elevated risks of cancer, congenital disorders, asthma and other health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas drilling.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance