Los Angeles, California skyline

California Oil & Gas Setbacks Recommendations Memo


Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance, contributed to the December 2020 memo, “Recommendations to CalGEM for Assessing the Economic Value of Social Benefits from a 2,500’ Buffer Zone Between Oil & Gas Extraction Activities and Nearby Communities.”


Below is the introduction, and you can find the full memo here.


The purpose of this memo is to recommend guidelines to CalGEM for evaluating the economic value of the social benefits and costs to people and the environment in requiring a 2,500 foot setback for oil and gas drilling (OGD) activities. The 2,500’ setback distance should be considered a minimum required setback. The extensive technical literature, which we reference below, analyzes health benefits to populations when they live much farther away than 2,500’, such as 1km to 5km, but 2,500’ is a minimal setback in much of the literature. Economic analyses of the benefits and costs of setbacks should follow the technical literature and consider setbacks beyond 2,500’ also.

The social benefits and costs derive primarily from reducing the negative impacts of OGD pollution of soil, water, and air on the well-being of nearby communities. The impacts include a long list of health conditions that are known to result from hazardous exposures in the vulnerable populations living nearby. The benefits and costs to the OGD industry of implementing a setback are more limited under the assumption that the proposed setback will not impact total production of oil and gas.

The comment letter submitted by Voices in Solidarity against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN) on November 30, 2020 lays out an inclusive approach to assessing the health and safety consequences to the communities living near oil and gas extraction activities. This memo addresses how CalGEM might analyze the economic value of the net social benefits from reducing the pollution suffered by nearby communities. In doing so, this memo provides detailed recommendations on one part of the broader holistic evaluation that CalGEM must use in deciding the setback rule.

This memo consists of two parts. The first part documents factors that CalGEM should take into account when evaluating the economic benefits and costs of the forthcoming proposed rule. These include factors like the adverse health impacts of pollution from OGD, the hazards causing them and their sources, and the way they manifest into social and economic costs. It also describes populations that are particularly vulnerable to pollution and its effects as well as geographic factors that impact outcomes.

The second part of this memo documents the direct and indirect economic benefits of the proposed rule. Here, the memo discusses the methods and data that should be leveraged to analyze economic benefits of reducing exposure to OGD pollution through setbacks. This includes the health benefits, impacts on worker productivity, opportunity costs of OGD activity within the proposed setback, and the fact that impacted communities are paying the external costs of OGD.



Please find the full memo here.




Support this work

Stay in the know


Documenting emissions from new oil and gas wells in California


Working with the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, FracTracker Alliance filmed emissions from oil and gas sites that have been issued permits in California under Governor Gavin Newsom since the beginning of 2019. Using state-of-the-art technology called optical gas imaging (OGI), we documented otherwise invisible toxic pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) being released from oil and gas wells and other infrastructure. This powerful technology provides further evidence of the negative consequences that come from each issued permit. Every single permit approval enabled by decisions made under Newsom can have substantial, visible impacts on local and regional air quality, contributes to climate change, and potentially exposes communities to health-harming pollution.

Despite a stated commitment to transition rapidly off fossil fuels, California has issued 7,625 permits to drill new oil and gas wells and rework existing wells since the beginning of 2019 — that is, on Governor Gavin Newsom’s watch. This expansion of the industry has clear implications for climate change and public health, as this article will demonstrate.



In collaboration with Consumer Watchdog, FracTracker Alliance has been periodically reporting on the number and locations of oil and gas wells permitted by Governor Newsom in California. In July of 2019, we showed how the rate of fracking under Governor Newsom had doubled, as compared to counts under former Governor Brown. Since then we have continued tracking the numbers and updating the California public via multiple news stories, blog reports, and with a map of new permits on NewsomWellWatch.com, where permitting data for the third quarter of 2020 has just been posted.

Now again, the rate of new oil and gas well permits issued by the California Geologic Energy Management division (CALGEM) continues to increase even faster in 2020, with permits issued to drill new oil and gas production wells nearly doubling since 2019. But what exactly does this mean for Frontline Communities and climate change? To answer this question, FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog teamed up with Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project (CEP).

CEP’s California team worked with community members and grassroots groups to film emissions of methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from oil and gas extraction sites, including infrastructure servicing oil and gas production wells such as the well-heads, separators, compressors, crude oil and produced water tanks, and gathering lines. Emissions of GHGs, such as methane, are a violation of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) California oil and gas rule (COGR), California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Division 3, Chapter 1, Subchapter 10 Climate Change, Article 4, § 95669, Leak Detection and Repair.

The emissions were filmed by a certified thermographer with a FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) GF320 camera that uses optical gas imaging (OGI) technology. The OGI technology allows the camera to film and record visualizations of VOC emissions based on the absorption of infrared light. It is the exact same technology required by the U.S. EPA under the rule for new source performance standards and the by California Air Resources Board for Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) to properly inspect oil and gas infrastructure. The video footage clearly shows the presence of a range of VOCs, methane, and other gases that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

The footage shown below is in greyscale and can appear grainy when the camera is being operated in high sensitivity modes, which is sometimes necessary to visualize certain pollution releases. The descriptions preceding each video explain what the trained camera operator saw and documented. A map of these sites is presented at NewsomWellWatch.com.

Newsom Well Watch interactive map

Navigate to the next slide using the arrows at the bottom of the map.


Find the story map, and more by clicking the image below.


Case Studies on Permitted Sites

Cat Canyon Tunnell Well Pad.

Earthworks’ California CEP thermographer visited this site in December of 2019, and just happened to arrive while the operator (oil and gas company) was conducting activities underground, including drilling new wells and reworking existing wells. In 2019 the operator, Vaquero Energy, was approved to drill 10 new cyclic steam wells and rework 23 existing oil and gas production wells at this site.

The footage shows significant emissions coming from an unknown source near the wellheads on the well pad; most likely these emissions were coming directly from the open boreholes of the wells. The emissions potentially include a cocktail of VOCs and GHGs such as methane, ethane, benzene, and toluene. This footage provides a candid view of what is released during these types of activities. The pollution shown appears to be the result of an uncontrolled source commonly resulting from drilling and reworking wells

Additionally, inspectors are rarely, if ever, present during these types of activities to ensure that they are conducted in accordance with regulations. The CEP camera operator reported the emissions and provided the OGI video to the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. By the time the inspector arrived, however, the drilling crew had ceased operations. The inspector did not detect any of these emissions, and as a result the operator was not held accountable for this large pollution release.

In the footage below, the emissions can be seen traveling over the fenceline of the well pad, swirling and mixing with the wind. This site is a clear example of what to look for in the following videos, since the emissions are so obvious. Fortunately, there are no homes or buildings in close proximity to this site, which potentially limited direct pollution exposure — although the pollution still degrades air quality and can pose an occupational health risk to oil field workers.


South Los Angeles Murphy Drill Site

The Murphy Drill Site in Los Angeles has been a long-standing nuisance and source of harmful pollution for neighbors in Jefferson Park. The site houses 31 individual operational wells, including 9 enhanced oil recovery injection wells and 22 oil and gas production wells, as shown below in the map in Figure 1. The wells are operated by Freeport-McMoran, while the site is owned by the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles. The site is within 200 feet of homes, playgrounds and a health clinic. There are over 16,000 residents within 2,500’ of the site, as well as a special needs high school, an elementary school, a hospice facility, and a senior housing complex.

Map of the California Murphy drill site

Figure 1. Map of the Murphy drill site

The neighborhoods near the Murphy Site are plagued with strong chemical odors, including those linked to oil and gas operations (such as the “rotten egg” smell of health-harming hydrogen sulfide), most likely from the toxic waste incinerators on site. Community members have suffered from respiratory problems, chronic nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation, and headaches. The operators have received multiple violations, including for releasing emissions at concentrations 400% over the allowable limit of methane and VOCs. Some of these violations were the direct result of complaints from the community and the Earthworks CEP team, which filmed pollution from the site on multiple occasions. Yet despite receiving “Notices of Violations” and fines, Freeport-McMoran has been allowed to continue operations. In OGI footage, emissions are visible continuously escaping from a vent on the equipment. While this leak has been addressed by regulators, each new visit to this site tends to result in finding new uncontrolled emissions sources.


South Los Angeles Jefferson Drill Site

The Jefferson drill site is very similar situation to the Murphy Site. The sites have the same operator, Freeport-McMoran, and surrounding neighborhoods in both locations have suffered from exposure to toxic pollution as well as odors, truck traffic, and noise. The Jefferson site has 49 operational wells, including 15 enhanced oil recovery wells, as shown below in Figure 2. In 2013 the operator reported using over 130,000 pounds of corrosive acids and other toxic chemicals for enhanced oil recovery operations. Regardless, an environmental impact report has never been completed for this site.

Map of the Jefferson drill site in South Los Angeles

Figure 2. Map of the Jefferson drill site in South Los Angeles.


The site is located 3 feet from the nearest home, and the surrounding residential buildings are considered “buffers” for the rest of the neighborhood, which also includes an elementary school about 700 feet away. The site was nearly shut down by the City of Los Angeles in 2019, but is currently still operational. In 2019 the site was even issued a permit to rework an existing well in order to increase production from the site. The footage below shows a large, consistent release of pollution from equipment on the well pad. The plume appears above the site and is visible against the background of the sky. The Earthworks CEP team reported the pollution to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which conducted an inspection, stopped the leak, and issued a notice of violation and a fine. It is not clear exactly how long this pollution problem had gone unnoticed or unaddressed, and it is not unlikely that another leak will occur without being quickly identified.


Wilmington E&B Resources WNF-I Site on Main St

The WNF-I drilling site is located in Carson in the City of Los Angeles. Operated by E&B Natural resources in the Wilmington oil and gas field, the site houses 35 operational oil and gas wells, including 12 enhanced oil recovery wells and a wastewater disposal well. There is also extensive above-ground infrastructure on the well site, including a large, high-volume tank battery used to store oil and wastewater produced from numerous oil and gas wells in the area.

Using OGI, Earthworks identified a large pollution release from the top of the largest tank. In the video footage, the plume or cloud of gases (likely methane and VOCs) can be seen hovering over the site and slowly dispersing over the fence-line into the communities of West Carson and Avalon Village. Despite clear operational problems, CalGEM approved this site for two rework permits in 2019 and then three re-drills (known as sidetracks) of existing wells in 2020 in order to increase production. The SCAQMD reports that they have inspected this facility, but it is not clear whether this major uncontrolled source has been stopped.


Long Beach Signal Hill Drill Site

At an urban drilling site in the neighborhood of Signal Hill in Los Angeles County, Earthworks filmed and documented pollution releases from numerous pieces of equipment. The site includes 15 operational oil and gas wells operated by Signal Hill Petroleum and The Termo Company. Emissions of gases (likely methane and VOCs) were documented on infrastructure from both operators. At this site, Signal Hill Petroleum received a permit in April 2019 to rework an operational well to increase production. That well is located less than 70’ from a home.

While this site is located within Los Angeles County, it is outside the jurisdiction of the city itself. Any local protections for drilling sites within the Los Angeles city limits are not afforded to communities such as Signal Hill. This area that includes the Signal Hill oil field and the Signal Hill portion of the Long Beach oil field, where many well sites are unmaintained and oversight is limited — conditions that in turn can result in corrosion and pollution leaks. The SCAQMD inspected this site and reported that these uncontrolled sources of emissions have been addressed by the operator, but it is not clear if the emission have stopped.

Midway-Sunset Crail Tank Farm

This tank farm, located in Kern County, services a number of wells operated by Holmes Western Oil Corporation on the outskirts of the Mid-Way Sunset Field. Of the wells serviced by this site, permits were issued to four active oil and gas production wells in 2019. The permits authorized the operator to rework the wellbores in order to increase production. The site contains nine operational oil and gas wells, including eight production wells pumping oil to the surface and one wastewater disposal well. There are multiple homes near this site, within 400’ to the west and within 300’ to the northeast.

For each gallon of oil produced, another ten gallons of contaminated wastewater are brought to the surface. Using diesel or gas generators this wastewater is pumped back into the ground. California regulators have a bad track record of managing underground injection of wastewater, which is now under the U.S. EPA’s oversight. The groundwater in this area of Kern County is largely contaminated and considered a sacrifice zone.

The emissions from this site are from the pressure release valves on the tops of multiple tanks. The tanks store both crude oil and wastewater. The infrared spectrum allows the camera to film the tank levels, which are nearly full. As the tanks fill with more crude oil and hydrocarbon contaminated wastewater the head space of the tank pressurizes with more VOC’s. This footage was also filmed at night when emissions are typically much lower. During the day heat from the sun (radiative energy) heats the tanks and increases the head space pressure resulting in greater emissions. While the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) was notified of these uncontrolled sources of emissions, their own inspections of the site did not identify an actionable offense on the part of the operator and these uncontrolled emissions continue to be released.


Tank Emissions

Crude oil and wastewater storage tanks are a common source of fugitive emissions and represent the majority of emissions presented in this report. Some tanks and well-sites use best practices that include closed vapor recovery systems to prevent venting tanks from leaking, but the vast majority do not and vent directly to the atmosphere. In all cases, tanks and pipeline infrastructure use pressure release valves to vent emissions when pressure builds too high. This venting is permitted as strictly an emergency activity to prevent hazardous build-up of pressure. Vents are even designed to open and reset themselves automatically. Consequently, tank venting is a common practice and operators seem to often leave these valves open.

While the recently enacted California Oil and Gas Rule (COGR) places limits on GHG emissions from all oil and gas facilities, internal policy of the San Joaquin Air Valley Air Pollution Control District has previously exempted tanks at low-producing well sites from having to be kept in a leak-free condition, creating a regulatory conflict that air districts and CARB need to resolve. This type of emissions source is also difficult for regulators to identify during inspections, for a number of reasons. These valves are typically located on the tops of large tanks where they are difficult to access and view, and inspections and sampling can only occur by chance (i.e., when the valve in open). Further, these valves can be immediately closed by operators during or upon notification of an upcoming inspection.

New Permits: Moving in the Wrong Direction

When Earthworks CEP uses OGI cameras to inspect an oil and gas site in California, finding and documenting pollution releases is so common that it is the default expectation. Because of access and proximity limitations, it is possible that more pollution is being released from sites than CEP can identify. All of these examples of pollution, including releases of methane and VOCs, add up to potentially degrade air quality and expose Frontline Communities to health risks — as well as many others just like them. This summary represents a small collection of leaking well sites visited by Earthworks CEP, which have coincidentally received new permits to operate and rework existing wells since January 1, 2019. CEP has also documented many other hazardous cases, such as the Jewett 1-23 site in Arvin (shown in the footage below), that is persistently exposing elementary school students to VOCs. These sites surely make up only a small proportion of the polluting oil and gas sites in California that harm climate and health.

From the initial drilling of an oil and gas well, during production, and into subsequent reworks, all phases of a well’s lifetime result in unpermitted and undocumented fugitive emissions. Regulating emissions from oil and gas extraction operations has not been effective in California. Regardless of notices of violations and fines, polluting facilities and well sites continue to operate and even receive new permits. Even the COGR rule, lauded as the most stringent GHG emissions regulation in the nation is technically unable to eliminate or even identify these uncontrolled sources. It is clear that the only ways to reduce exposures to these emissions for Frontline Communities is to institute protective setbacks and stop permitting the drilling of new wells and the reworking of aging wells.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Support this work

Stay in the know

Incinerators: Dinosaurs in the world of energy generation


In this article, we’ll take a look at the current trend in “re-branding” incineration as a viable option to deal with the mountains of garbage generated by our society. Incineration can produce energy for electricity, but can the costs—both economically, and ecologically—justify the benefits? What are the alternatives?

Changes in our waste stream

In today’s world of consumerism and production, waste disposal is a chronic problem facing most communities worldwide. Lack of attention to recycling and composting, as well as ubiquitous dependence on plastics, synthetics, and poorly-constructed or single-use goods has created a waste crisis in the United States. So much of the waste that we create could be recycled or composted, however, taking extraordinary levels of pressure off our landfills. According to estimates in 2017 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 30 percent of municipal solid waste is made up of organic matter like food waste, wood, and yard trimmings, almost all of which could be composted. Paper, glass, and metals – also recyclable – make up nearly 40 percent of the residential waste stream. Recycling plastic, a material which comprises 13% of the waste stream, has largely been a failed endeavor thus far.

Why say NO to incinerators?

  • They are bad for the environment, producing toxic chlorinated byproducts like dioxins. Incineration often converts toxic municipal waste into other forms, some of which are even more toxic than their precursors.
  • They often consume more energy than they produce and are not profitable to run.
  • They add CO2 to the atmosphere.
  • They promote the false narrative that we can “get something” from our trash
  • They detract from the conversation about actual renewable energy sources like wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy that will stop the acceleration of climate chaos.

Figure 1: A breakdown of the 267.78 million tons of municipal waste that were generated in the US in 2017. Source: figure developed by FracTracker Alliance, based on 2017 EPA data. Source: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials

Nevertheless, of the approximately 400 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, only about 10% of it is recycled. The rest winds up in the waste stream or as microfragments (or microplastics) in our oceans, freshwater lakes, and streams.

Figure 2: Increase in global plastics production, 1950-2015, Source: Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. Available at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 Referenced in https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution

According to an EPA fact sheet, by 2017, municipal solid waste generation increased three-fold compared with 1960. In 1960, that number was 88.1 million tons. By 2017, this number had risen to nearly 267.8 million tons. Over that same period, per-capita waste generation rose from 2.68 pounds per person per day, to 4.38 pounds per person per day, as our culture became more wed to disposable items.

The EPA provides a robust “facts and figures” breakdown of waste generation and disposal here.  In 2017, 42.53 million tons of US waste was shipped to landfills, which are under increasing pressure to expand and receive larger and larger loads from surrounding area, and, in some cases, hundreds of miles away.

How are Americans doing in reducing waste?

On average, in 2017, Americans recycled and composted 35.2% of our individual waste generation rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day.  While this is a notable jump from decades earlier, much of the gain appears to be in the development of municipal yard waste composting programs. Although the benefits of recycling are abundantly clear, in today’s culture, according to a PEW Research Center report published in 2016, just under 30% of Americans live in communities where recycling is strongly encouraged. An EPA estimate for 2014 noted that the recycling rate that year was only 34.6%, nationwide, with the highest compliance rate at 89.5% for corrugated boxes.

Figure 3. Percent of Americans who report recycling and re-use behaviors in their communities, via Pew Research center
Historically, incineration – or burning solid waste – has been one method for disposing of waste. And in 2017, this was the fate of 34 million tons—or nearly 13%– of all municipal waste generated in the United States. Nearly a quarter of this waste consisted of containers and packaging—much of that made from plastic.  The quantity of packaging materials in the combusted waste stream has jumped from only 150,000 tons in 1970 to 7.86 million tons in 2017.  Plastic, in its many forms, made up 16.4% of all incinerated materials, according to the EPA’s estimates in 2017.

Figure 4: A breakdown of the 34.03 tons of municipal waste incinerated for energy in the US in 2017

What is driving the abundance of throw-away plastics in our waste stream?

Sadly, the answer is this: The oil and gas industry produces copious amounts of ethane, which is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction. Plastics are an “added value” component of the cycle of fossil fuel extraction. FracTracker has reported extensively on the controversial development of ethane “cracker” plants, which chemically change this extraction waste product into feedstock for the production of polypropylene plastic nuggets. These nuggets, or “nurdles,” are the building blocks for everything from fleece sportswear, to lumber, to packaging materials. The harmful impacts from plastics manufacturing on air and water quality, as well as on human and environmental health, are nothing short of stunning.

FracTracker has reported extensively on this issue. For further background reading, explore:

A report co-authored by FracTracker Alliance and the Center for Environmental Integrity in 2019 found that plastic production and incineration in 2019 contributed greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of 189 new 500-megawatt coal power plants. If plastic production and use grow as currently planned, by 2050, these emissions could rise to the equivalent to the emissions released by more than 615 coal-fired power plants.

Figure 5: Projected carbon dioxide equivalencies in plastics emissions, 2019-2050. Source: Plastic and Climate https://www.ciel.org/plasticandclimate/

Just another way of putting fossil fuels into our atmosphere

Incineration is now strongly critiqued as a dangerous solution to waste disposal as more synthetic and heavily processed materials derived from fossils fuels have entered the waste stream. Filters and other scrubbers that are designed to remove toxins and particulates from incineration smoke are anything but fail-safe. Furthermore, the fly-ash and bottom ash that are produced by incineration only concentrate hazardous compounds even further, posing additional conundrums for disposal.

Incineration as a means of waste disposal, in some states is considered a “renewable energy” source when electricity is generated as a by-product. Opponents of incineration and the so-called “waste-to-energy” process see it as a dangerous route for toxins to get into our lungs, and into the food stream. In fact, Energy Justice Network sees incineration as:

… the most expensive and polluting way to make energy or to manage waste. It produces the fewest jobs compared to reuse, recycling and composting the same materials. It is the dirtiest way to manage waste – far more polluting than landfills. It is also the dirtiest way to produce energy – far more polluting than coal burning.

Municipal waste incineration: bad environmentally, economically, ethically

Waste incineration has been one solution for disposing of trash for millennia. And now, aided by technology, and fueled by a crisis to dispose of ever-increasing trash our society generates, waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration facilities are a component in how we produce electricity.

But what is a common characteristic of the communities in which WTEs are sited? According to a 2019 report by the Tishman Environmental and Design Center at the New School, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators are located in communities of color and low-income communities.  Incinerators are not only highly problematic environmentally and economically. They present direct and dire environmental justice threats.

Waste-to-Energy facilities in the US, existing and proposed

Click here to view this map full-screen

Activate the Layers List button to turn on Environmental Justice data on air pollutants and cancer occurrences across the United States.  We have also included real-time air monitoring data in the interactive map because one of the health impacts of incineration includes respiratory illnesses. These air monitoring stations measure ambient particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the atmosphere, which can be a helpful metric.

What are the true costs of incineration?

These trash incinerators capture energy released from the process of burning materials, and turn it into electricity. But what are the costs? Proponents of incineration say it is a sensible way to reclaim or recovery energy that would otherwise be lost to landfill disposal. The US EIA also points out that burning waste reduces the volume of waste products by up to 87%.

The down-side of incineration of municipal waste, however, is proportionally much greater, with a panoply of health effects documented by the National Institutes for Health, and others.

Dioxins (shown in Figures 6-11) are some of the most dangerous byproducts of trash incineration. They make up a group of highly persistent organic pollutants that take a long time to degrade in the environment and are prone to bioaccumulation up the food chain.

Dioxins are known to cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine and immune systems, and lead to reproductive and developmental problems. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous compounds produced from incineration. Compared with the air pollution from coal-burning power plants, dioxin concentrations produced from incineration may be up to 28 times as high.




Figures 6-11: Dioxin chemical structures via US EPA. Source: https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin

Federal EPA regulations between 2000 and 2005 resulted in the closure of nearly 200 high dioxin emitting plants. Currently, there are fewer than 100 waste-to-energy incinerators operating in the United States, all of which are required to operate with high-tech equipment that reduces dioxins to 1% of what used to be emitted. Nevertheless, even with these add-ons, incinerators still produce 28 times the amount of dioxin per BTU when compared with power plants that burn coal.

Even with pollution controls required of trash incinerators since 2005, compared with coal-burning energy generation, incineration still releases 6.4 times as much of the notoriously toxic pollutant mercury to produce the equivalent amount of energy.

Energy Justice Network, furthermore, notes that incineration is the most expensive means of managing waste… as well as making energy. This price tag includes high costs to build incinerators, as well as staff and maintain them — exceeding operation and maintenance costs of coal by a factor of 11, and nuclear by a factor of 4.2.

Figure 12. Costs of incineration per ton are nearly twice that of landfilling. Source: National Solid Waste Management Association 2005 Tip Fee Survey, p. 3.
Energy Justice Network and others have pointed out that the amount of energy recovered and/or saved from recycling or composting is up to five times that which would be provided through incineration.

Figure 13. Estimated power plant capital and operating costs. Source: Energy Justice Network

The myth that incineration is a form of “renewable energy”

Waste is a “renewable” resource only to the extent that humans will continue to generate waste. In general, the definition of “renewable” refers to non-fossil fuel based energy, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and biomass. Synthetic materials like plastics, derived from oil and gas, however, are not. Although not created from fossil fuels, biologically-derived products are not technically “renewable” either.

ZeroWasteEurope argues that:

Biogenic materials you find in the residual waste stream, such as food, paper, card and natural textiles, are derived from intensive agriculture – monoculture forests, cotton fields and other “green deserts”. The ecosystems from which these materials are derived could not survive in the absence of human intervention, and of energy inputs from fossil sources. It is, therefore, more than debatable whether such materials should be referred to as renewable.

Although incineration may reduce waste volumes by up to 90%, the resulting waste-products are problematic. “Fly-ash,” which is composed of the light-weight byproducts, may be reused in concrete and wallboard. “Bottom ash” however, the more coarse fraction of incineration—about 10% overall—concentrates toxins like heavy metals. Bottom-ash is disposed of in landfills or sometimes incorporated into structural fill and aggregate road-base material.

How common is the practice of using trash to fuel power plants?

Trash incineration accounts for a fraction of the power produced in the United States. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, just under 13% of electricity generated in the US comes from burning of municipal solid waste, in fewer than 65 waste-to-energy plants nation-wide. Nevertheless, operational waste-to-incineration plants are found throughout the United States, with a concentration east of the Mississippi.

According to EnergyJustice.net’s count of waste incinerators in the US and Canada, currently, there are:

    • 88 operating
    • 41 proposed
    • 0 expanding
    • 207 closed or defeated

Figure 14. Locations of waste incinerators that are already shut down. Source: EnergyJustice.net)
Precise numbers of these incinerators are difficult to ascertain, however. Recent estimates from the federal government put the number of current waste-to-energy facilities at slightly fewer: EPA currently says there are 75 of these incinerators in the United States. And in their database, updated July 2020, the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), lists 63 power plants that are fueled by municipal solid waste. Of these 63 plants, 40—or 66%—are in the northeast United States.

Regardless, advocates of clean energy, waste reduction, and sustainability argue that trash incinerators, despite improvements in pollution reduction over earlier times and the potential for at least some electric generation, are the least effective option for waste disposal that exists. The trend towards plant closure across the United States would support that assertion.

Let’s take a look at the dirty details on WTE facilities in three states in the Northeastern US.

Review of WTE plants in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey

A. New York State

In NYS, there are currently 11 waste-to-energy facilities that are operational, and two that are proposed. Here’s a look at some of them:

The largest waste-to-energy facility in New York State, Covanta Hempstead Company (Nassau County), was built in 1989. It is a 72 MW generating plant, and considered by Covanta to be the “cornerstone of the town’s integrated waste service plan.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO database, this plant has no violations listed. Oddly enough, even after drawing public attention in 2009 about the risks associated with particulate fall-out from the plant, the facility has not been inspected in the past 5 years.

Other WTE facilities in New York State include the Wheelabrator plant located in Peekskill (51 MW), Covanta Energy of Niagara in Niagara Falls (32 MW), Convanta Onondaga in Jamesville (39 MW), Huntington Resource Recovery in Suffolk County (24.3 MW), and the Babylon Resource Recovery Facility also in Suffolk County (16.8 MW). Five additional plants scattered throughout the state in Oswego, Dutchess, Suffolk, Tioga, and Washington Counties, are smaller than 15 MW each. Of those, two closed and one proposal was defeated.

B. Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, six WTE facilities are currently operating. Two have been closed, and six defeated.

C. New Jersey

And in New Jersey, there are currently four operating WTE facilities. Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, is New Jersey’s largest WTE facility. It opened in 1990, houses three burners, and produces 93 MW total.

Union County Resource Recovery Facility, which opened in 1994, operates three burners, producing 73 MW total. Covanta Camden Energy Recovery Center opened in 1991. It has 13 burners, producing a total of 46 MW. Wheelabrator Gloucester LP (Westville, NJ) opened in 1990. The two burners there produce 21 MW of power. Covanta Warren Energy is the oldest and smallest WTE facility in New Jersey. It produced 14 MW of energy and opened in 1988. Operations are currently shut down, but this closure may not be permanent.

Throw-aways, burn-aways, take-aways

Looming large above the arguments about appropriate siting, environmental justice, financial gain, and energy prices, is a bigger question:

How can we continue to live on this planet at our current rates of consumption, and the resultant waste generation?

The issue here is not so much about the sources of our heat and electricity in the future, but rather “How MUST we change our habits now to ensure a future on a livable planet?”

Professor Paul Connett (emeritus, St. Lawrence University), is a specialist in the build-up of dioxins in food chains, and the problems, dangers, and alternatives to incineration. He is a vocal advocate for a “Zero Waste” approach to consumption, and suggests that every community embrace these principles as ways to guide a reduction of our waste footprint on the planet. The fewer resources that are used, the less waste is produced, mitigating the extensive costs brought on by our consumptive lifestyles. Waste-to-energy incineration facilities are just a symptom of our excessively consumptive society.

Dr. Connett suggests these simple but powerful methods to drastically reduce the amount of materials that we dispose — whether by incineration, landfill, or out the car window on a back-road, anywhere in the world:

    • Source separation
    • Recycling
    • Door-to-door collection
    • Composting
    • Building Reuse, Repair and Community centers
    • Implementing waste reduction Initiatives
    • Building Residual Separation and Research centers
    • Better industrial design
    • Economic incentives
    • Interim landfill for non-recyclables and biological stabilization of other organic materials

Connett’s Zero Waste charge to industry is this: “If we can’t reuse, recycle, or compost it, industry shouldn’t be making it.” Reducing our waste reduces our energy footprint on the planet.

In a similar vein, FracTracker has written about the potential for managing waste through a circular economics model, which has been successfully implemented by the city of Freiburg, Germany. A circular economic model incorporates recycling, reuse, and repair to loop “waste” back into the system. A circular model focuses on designing products that last and can be repaired or re-introduced back into a natural ecosystem.

This is an important vision to embrace. Every day. Everywhere.

Recommended resources

Figure 17: Illustration of common waste streams from “The Story of Plastic” (https://www.storyofplastic.org/)

By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator

Support this work

Stay in the know

Recommendations for an EIR to prioritize Kern County Frontline Communities


Kern County Environmental Impact Report

As we have discussed in previous reports, Kern County is required to develop a new set of environmental impact report (EIR) requirements for permitting new oil and gas wells.

With this recent development, it is necessary to provide science-based recommendations for the EIR to prioritize the protection of the health of frontline communities. Frontline communities bear the most risk. Emissions from oil and gas infrastructure and exposure to water and soil contamination most affect those living closest. It is therefore vital for an EIR to institute protections that address these known and well-established sources of exposure. In addition, the EIR must prioritize a requirement by law that all regulatory information is equitably available and imparted to Frontline Communities; with Kern County, this means providing regulatory notices in Spanish, the predominantly spoken language in this area, according to household census data.

In preparation of the Kern County rule-making process, FracTracker Alliance has prepared new analyses of Kern County communities. These analyses have mapped and assessed the distribution of oil and gas wells within Kern County for proximity to sensitive receptors. This information is vital to understand how the “most drilled County” in the United States manages the risks associated with oil and gas extraction. According to CalGEM data updated September 1, 2020, there are 78,016 operational oil and gas wells countywide. Of these, 5,906 (7.6%) are within 2,500 feet of a sensitive receptor, receptors being homes, schools, healthcare facilities, child daycare facilities, and elderly care facilities. Thirty-six CHHS healthcare facilities and 35 schools in Kern County are within 2,500 feet of an operational oil and gas well. In fact, 646 operational wells are within 2,500 feet of a school in Kern County. Most of these at-risk, sensitive receptors are in Kern’s cities, large and small.

Table 1. Well Counts in Kern County

Most of the population of Kern County is in its cities. Unincorporated, rural areas of Kern County are in majority zoned for large estate landownership and agriculture, and have low population density, rather than designated for residential, single-family homes, apartments, developments, and mobile homes. Oil and gas extraction operations and well sites are dispersed throughout the county, including near and within the residentially-zoned areas of cities. Given that the county’s population density is highest in cities, these areas present the greatest public health risk for exposures to toxic emissions and spills from fossil fuel extraction operations. This analysis focuses specifically on the Frontline Communities of Kern County, where oil and gas extraction is occurring near city limits.

Table 2. Operational oil and gas well counts near cities and sensitive receptors.

Frontline Communities

These include Lost Hills, Lamont, Taft, Arvin, Shafter and Bakersfield. In Table 2 (above) are counts of operational wells within two miles of each city, along with demographic profiles for each incorporated/unincorporated city, based on American Community Survey (2013-2018) census data (downloaded from Census.gov). Population estimates are based on the ACS block groups. For block groups larger than city boundaries, the population was assumed to be within city limits, although in certain cases, such as Arvin, a small section of a block group was eliminated from the city demographic counts. This assumption is validated by the county and city zoning parcels. The maps below in Figures 1 – 6 show the municipal zoning parcels for these cities, with maps that include operational oil and gas wells. Note the proximity of residential- and urban-zoned parcels to oil and gas extraction in Kern County, and the difference in zoning between the cities and the rest of the county. Cities are zoned for residences, including apartments, single-family homes, and mobile homes. Most of the rest of the county is agriculture and estates, where predominantly wealthy residents and corporations own large holdings.

Figure 1. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Lost Hills.


Figure 2. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Lamont.


Figure 3. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Taft.


Figure 4. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Arvin.


Figure 5. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Shafter.


Figure 6. Municipal zoning boundaries of the City of Bakersfield.

Economic Disparity in Environmental Justice Communities

These six cities and their Frontline Communities experience a disparity of exposure to environmental pollutants, particularly emissions from oil and gas extraction operations — as well as pesticides, regionally degraded air quality (from ozone and particulate matter), and contaminated groundwater. Besides the risk disparity, these communities are also vulnerable from several other factors, including disparities in economic opportunity, demographics, and access to information.

Compared to the rest of Kern County, Frontline Communities in these unincorporated and incorporated cities have less financial opportunity. The maps in Figures 7 – 9 below show block groups and the proportions of the population with annual median incomes less than or equal to $40,000. This value was chosen because it is less than 80% of the countywide median income of $51,579 in 2018. For comparison, the statewide median income is $75,277. Lack of economic opportunity for these communities limits the ability to leverage financial resources to protect their community health and to maintain local-level financial independence from corporate influence. In Lost Hills, over 80% of the city block group closest to the Lost Hills Oil Field has a median income less than or equal to $40,000. The same trend is visible for Lamont, Taft, and Arvin. In Figure 9, the only section of Taft with higher annual median income is sparsely populated and predominantly open space, as confirmed in Figure 3. For the areas of Frontline Community block groups within 2,500 feet of an operational well, 36% of the population makes under $40,000; 80% of the Kern County annual median income is $41,000.

In the maps below, the American Community Survey data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) in the map refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the population’s annual median income is less than or equal to $40,000.


Table 3. Demographical Profile of each city, including the percentage of Spanish-speaking households and proportion of households with limited English proficiency.


Figure 7. Lost Hills income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes of less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).


Figure 8. Lamont income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).


Figure 9. Taft income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).


Figure 10. Arvin income disparity: This map shows the population percentage with annual incomes less than or equal to $40,000, which is less than 80% of the Kern median income of $51,579 (2018).

Linguistic Isolation Disenfranchises Frontline Communities

Access to information is vital for representation. Without representation, communities have no power over their autonomy. Kern County’s Frontline Communities are denied this basic, but absolutely vital right. According to the U.S. Census, over 51% of Kern County is Hispanic, and the maps below show that the demographics of the Frontline Communities in these cities are regularly between 80 – 100% Hispanic. Additionally, the maps illustrate that the households in these communities are majority Spanish-speaking households, many with limited English proficiency (all persons aged five and older reported speaking English less than “very well”). Yet Kern County regulators only provide information, notices, and other materials in English. This linguistically segregates power in Kern County, limiting Spanish-speaking Kern residents and citizens from participating in local decision-making processes.

Using the five-year ACS census data (2018) clipped by the 2,500 feet well setback zone, I have calculated the percentage and number of Spanish-speaking households. For the areas of Frontline Community block groups within 2,500 feet of an operational well, 9,077 households (30.8%) speak Spanish as their primary language, and 1,900 households have limited access to proficient English translators.

Figure 11. Lost Hills Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the population is Hispanic.


Figure 12. Lost Hills Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


Figure 13. Lost Hills Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the household percentage that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking and have limited English proficiency.


Figure 14. Lamont Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.


Figure 15. Lamont Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


Figure 16. Lamont Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking and have limited English proficiency.


Figure 17. Taft Hispanic population demographics: The map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps the American Community Survey data is summarized in percentages of 1, where, for example, light orange (<.400) in the map below refers to areas where 20%-40% of the populations is Hispanic.


Figure 18. Taft Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


Figure 19. Arvin Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.


Figure 20. Arvin Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


Figure 21. Arvin Limited English Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language, with limited English-speaking proficiency. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking, with limited English proficiency.


Figure 22. Shafter Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.


Figure 23. Shafter Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


Figure 24. Bakersfield Hispanic population demographics: This map shows the Hispanic percentage of the population. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the populations is Hispanic.


Figure 25. Bakersfield Spanish-speaking households: This map shows the percentage of the households that speak Spanish as their primary language. In these maps, the ACS data is summarized in percentages of one, where, for example, light orange (<.400) refers to areas where 20% – 40% of the households are Spanish speaking.


These maps make it visually clear that the Frontline Communities near oil and gas extraction in Kern County are largely disenfranchised from the democratic process, a direct result of California’s regulatory agencies refusing to provide notices and other important documents and information in Spanish. Additionally, these same communities have limited options, due to economic disparities that make Kern County’s Frontline Communities the poorest in the state of CA. These two factors leveraged against communities prevent them from obtaining self-governance or autonomy over the industrialization occurring in and around their neighborhoods. Furthermore, the demarcations of census boundaries splitting the incorporated and unincorporated cities are essentially gerrymandered to disguise the blatant environmental inequities that exist in Kern County, in direct violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. Kern County must consider these injustices in the development of new environmental impact review requirements for oil and gas operators.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance


This report was revised on 12/13/20

The following addendum incorporates additional demographics data that more thoroughly describes Frontline Communities in Kern County. We focus on the Frontline Communities closest to intense oil extraction operations. This analysis prioritizes areas with substantial population density. Remote sensing (satellite imagery) data and direct knowledge of Kern County cities was used to define the sample areas for this analysis. These techniques and methods avoid the type of spatial bias that distorted the results of the environmental justice (EJ) analysis in the 2020 Kern County draft EIR (chapter 7 PDF pp.1292-1305).

2020 Kern County Draft EIR

The EJ analysis included in the 2020 Kern County Draft EIR uses the spatial bias of US census designated areas to generate false conclusions. The Draft EIR can do this in two ways:

First, the Draft EIR uses census tracts in the place of smaller census designated areas. The draft EIR states the county conducted, “an analysis of Kern County census tract five-year American Community Survey (ACS) demographic and poverty data for the period was conducted … and the five-year data is the most accurate form of ACS data, has the largest sample size, and is the only ACS data that covers tiny populations.” While this is true about the five-year data, the authors chose to analyze using census tracts, which are much too large to cover small populations. It is not clear why the authors would have chosen census tracts, rather than the higher resolution ‘census block groups’ ACS dataset, as both datasets are readily available from the US Census Bureau.

Additionally, the draft EIR limits the sociodemographic analysis to only census tracts that contain PLSS QTR/QTRS’s ranked as Tier 1, so that it does not include neighboring communities in different census tracts in the demographical analysis. As discussed in the draft EIR, Tier 1 areas contain four or more operational wells in a tiny area. The draft EIR explicitly states that Tier 1 Qtr(s) do not contain schools or healthcare facilities. This trend is not limited to just the Qtr/Qtr sections. The census tracts containing the Tier 1 sections contain very few sensitive receptors, like schools and healthcare facilities. This is because census tracts and other census designated areas are drawn specifically to differentiate between urban and rural/industrial areas. Census tracts containing oil fields cover large rural areas, and intentionally avoid areas with any significant population density. This results in donuts and other strange shapes, where communities in much smaller census tracts (by area) are enveloped by large rural census tracts containing oil fields. As shown in the maps below, this eliminates all communities with any real population density from the draft EIR EJ analysis, even though they are the communities nearest to the oil fields.

In the maps below, census tracts are compared to census block groups, to show the difference in size and nature of their spatial distribution. In most cases, census tracts encompassing populated areas are tiny, and limited to the urban boundaries of cities. In the cases of Shafter and Arvin, the residential census tracts are encircled by a different donut-shaped census tract, actually containing most of the operational wells and oil fields. While the census tracts of the Frontline Communities are within very short distances of operational oil and gas wells and major fields at large, most communities are not included in the Kern 2020 draft EIR EJ analysis. With Lost Hills, the city of Lost Hills is within the same census tract as the Lost Hills oil field and several other extensive oil fields. The city of Lost Hills is the closest community to oil extraction operations in the census tract, and the small city contains just over 50% of the total population within this massive census tract. But because of the sheer size of the census tract, demographics of this Frontline Community are diluted by the vast rural area of northwestern Kern County, which is higher income with demographics 10% less Latino. 

Map A1. Arvin Census Designated Areas. The map shows the city of Arvin and includes both census tracts and census block groups for comparison. It shows operational oil and gas wells in the map, along with 2,500’ buffers. This Frontline Community would be excluded in an analysis that only considers census tracts containing Tier 1 areas negatively impacted by oil and gas extraction operations. The census tracts that make up the majority of the city of Arvin are enveloped on all four sides by one larger census tract that contains most oil and gas wells.


Map A2. Shafter Census Designated Areas. The map shows the city of Shafter and includes both census tracts and census block groups for comparison. It shows operational oil and gas wells in the map, along with 2,500’ buffers. This Frontline Community would not be included in an analysis that only considers census tracts containing Tier 1 areas negatively impacted by oil and gas extraction operations. The census tract containing the North Shafter oil field forms a donut around the city of Shafter.


Map A3. Lost Hills Census Designated Areas. The map shows the city of Lost Hills and includes both census tracts and census block groups for comparison. It shows operational oil and gas wells, along with 2,500’ buffers. While the city of Lost Hills may be included in the 2020 Kern draft EIR EJ analysis, the results will not reflect the demographics of the community due to the incredibly large size of the census tract. It does not even entirely fit in the frame of this map!

Map A4. Bakersfield Census Designated Areas. The map shows the city of Bakersfield and includes both census tracts and census block groups for comparison. It shows operational oil and gas wells, along with 2,500’ buffers. This Frontline Community would not be included in an analysis that only considers census tracts containing Tier 1 areas negatively impacted by oil and gas extraction operations. The oil and gas wells in the Kern River, Kern Front and other oil fields make up their own unique census tract that also includes extensive areas of rural ‘estate’ zoned lands.

Demographics Analysis

In the initial report below we analyzed the demographics and linguistic isolation of communities who live within 2,500’ of operational oil and gas wells. We found that the urban census block groups closest to Kern’s major oil and gas fields are some of the most linguistically isolated regions in the country. Densely populated block groups near large oil fields in the cities of Lost Hills, Arvin, Lamont and Weepatch suffer from linguistic isolation, where up to 80% of households do not have a proficient english speaker. In the analysis that follows, we focus more on specific Frontline Communities. Generating county-wide statistics using census block groups could result in too much spatial bias. Census designated areas do not have enough uniformity, and those located in and near oil fields are large in area (though would still provide a more accurate picture in comparison to census tracts). Therefore the analyses that follow take a community-centric approach to more accurately describe the demographics of several of Kern’s largest, most populous, Frontline Communities.  


The City of Shafter, California, is near over 100 operational wells in the North Shafter oil field, as shown below in the map in Figure 2. Technically, the wells are within a donut-shaped census block group (outlined in blue) that surrounds the limits of the urban census block groups (outlined in pink). Shafter’s population of nearly 20,000 is over 86% Latinx, but the surrounding “donut” with just 2,000 people is about 70% Latinx, much wealthier, and with very low population density. The other neighboring rural census areas housing the rest of the Shafter oil field wells follow this same trend. 

An uninformed analysis, such as the Kern County EIR, would conclude that the 2,000 individuals who live within the blue “donut” are at the highest risk, because they share the same census designated area as the wells. Notably, the only population center of this census block group (or census tracts, which follow this same trend) is at the opposite end of the block group, far from the Shafter oil field. Instead, the most at-risk community is the urban community of Shafter with high population density; the census block groups within the pink hole of the donut contain the communities and homes nearest the North Shafter field. 

Map A5. The City of Shafter, California is located just to the south of the North Shafter oil field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, as well as the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 

Lost Hills, Arvin, and Taft

The cities of Lost Hills, Arvin, and Taft are all very similar to Shafter. The cities have densely populated urban centers within or directly next to an oil field. In the maps below in Figures 3 readers can see the community of Lost Hills next to the Lost Hills oil field. Lost Hills, like the densely populated cities of Arvin and Taft, are located very close to large scale extraction operations. Census block groups that include the most affected area of Lost Hills, outlined in pink, while surrounding low population density census block groups are shown in blue. Most of the areas outlined in blue are zoned as “estate” and “agriculture” areas. The outlines of the city boundaries are also shown, along with 2,500’ and mile setback distances from currently operational oil and gas wells.

Lost Hills is another situation where a donut-shaped census area distorts the results of low resolution demographics assessments, such as the one conducted by Kern County in their 2020 Draft EIR (PDF pp. 1292-1305). Almost all of the wells within the Lost Hills oil fields are just outside of a 2,500’ setback, but the incredibly high density of extraction operations results in the combined impact of the sum of these wells on degraded air quality. While stringent setback distances from oil and gas wells are a necessary component of environmental justice, a 2,500’ setback on its own is not enough to reduce exposures and risk for the Frontline Community of Lost Hills. For these Frontline Communities, a setback needs to be much larger to reduce exposures. In fact, limiting a public health intervention to a 2,500′ setback requirement alone is not sufficient to address the environmental health inequities in Lost Hills, Shafter, and other similar communities.

Lost Hill’s nearly 2,000 residents are over 99% Latinx, and over 70% of the households make less than $40,000 in annual income (which is substantially less than the annual median income of Kern County households [at $52,479]). The map in Figure A6 shows that the Lost Hills public elementary school is within 2,500’ of the Lost Hills oil field and within two miles of over 2,600 operational wells, besides the 6,000 operational wells in the rest of the field. 

The City of Arvin has 8 operational oil and gas wells within the city limits, and another 71 operational wells within 2 miles. Arvin, with nearly 22,000 people, is over 90% Latinx, and over 60% of the households make less than $40,000 in annual income. 

Additionally the City of Taft, located directly between the Buena Vista and Midway Sunset Fields, has a demographic profile with a Latinx population at least 10% higher than the rest of southern Kern County. 

Lost Hills, Arvin, and Taft are among the most affected communities of Kern County and represent a large proportion of the Kern citizens at risk of exposure to localized air quality degradation from oil and gas extraction.

In these cases, if only census tract well counts are considered, like in the 2020 Kern County draft EIR, these Frontline Communities will be completely disregarded. Census tracts are intentionally drawn to separate urban/residential areas from industrial/estate/agricultural areas. The census areas that contain the oil fields are very large and sparsely populated, while neighboring census areas with dense population centers, such as these small cities, are most impacted by the oil and gas fields.

Map A6. The Unincorporated City of Lost Hills in Kern County, California is within 2,500’ of the Lost Hills Oil Field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, and the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 


The City of Bakersfield is a unique scenario. It is the largest city in Kern County and as a result suburban developments surround parts of the city. Urban flight has moved much of the wealth into these suburbs. The suburban sprawl has occurred in directions including North toward the Kern River oil field, predominantly on the field’s western flank in Oildale and Seguro. In the map below in Map A7, these areas are located just to the north of the Kern River.

This is a poignant example of the development of cheap land for housing developments in an area where oil and gas operations already existed; an issue that needs to be considered in the development of setbacks and public health interventions and policies. This small population of predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods shares similar risks as the lower-income Communities of Color who account for most Bakersfield’s urban center. Even though these suburban communities are less vulnerable to the oppressive forces of systemic racism, real estate markets will continue to prioritize cheap land for development, moving communities closer to extraction operations. 

Regardless of the implications of urban sprawl and suburban development,it is important to not disregard environmental risks for all communities. The demographics of the at-risk areas of the city of Bakersfield are predominantly Non-white (31%) and Latinx (60%), particularly as compared to the city’s suburbs (15% Non-white and 26% Latinx). About 33,000 people live in the city’s northern suburbs, and another 470,000 live in Bakersfield’s urban city center just to the south of the Kern River oil field. The urban population of Bakersfield is exposed to the local and regional negative air quality impacts of the Kern River and numerous other surrounding oil fields making it a disparately impacted community.

Map A7. Map of the city of Bakersfield in Kern County, California between several major oil fields including the Kern Front oil field. The map shows the 2,500’ setback distance in tan, and the census block groups in both pink and blue. Pink block groups show the urban case populations used to generate the demographic summaries. 

Support this work

Stay in the know

Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

The Health & Environmental Effects of Fracking

As unconventional oil and natural gas extraction operations have expanded throughout the United States over the past decade, the harmful health and environmental effects of fracking have become increasingly apparent and are supported by a steadily growing number of scientific studies and reports. Although some uncertainties remain around the exact exposure pathways, it is clear that issues associated with fracking negatively impact public health and the surrounding environment.

Health Effects

Holding oil and gas companies accountable for the environmental health effects of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD), or “fracking,” has been challenging in the US because current regulations do not require drilling operators to disclose exactly what chemicals are used. However, many of the chemicals used for fracking have been identified and come with serious health consequences. The primary known compounds of concern include BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and associated pollutants such as tropospheric ozone and hydrogen sulfide. BTEX chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans, and can lead to other serious health problems including damage to the nervous, respiratory, and immune system. While some of these BTEX chemicals can occur naturally in groundwater sources, spills and transport of these chemicals used during fracking can be a major source of groundwater contamination. 

Exposure to pollution caused from fracking activity can lead to many negative short-term and long-lasting health effects. Reported health effects from short-term exposures to these pollutants include headaches, coughing, nausea, nose bleeds, skin and eye irritation, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Recent studies have also found an association between pregnant women living in close proximity to fracking sites and low-birth weights and heart defects. Additionally, a recent study conducted in the rural area of Eagle Ford, Texas found that pregnant women living within five kilometers (or about three miles) of fracking operations that regularly engaged in “flaring,” or the burning of excess natural gas, were 50% more likely to have a preterm birth than those without exposure. 


Figure 1. Summary of known health impacts associated with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UOGD).

Exposure to radioactive materials is also a serious concern. During the fracking process as  high-pressured water and chemicals fracture the rock formations, naturally occurring radioactive elements like radium are also drawn out of the rocks in addition to oil and natural gas. As the oil and natural gas are extracted from the ground, the radioactive material primarily comes back as a component of brine, a byproduct of the extraction process. The brine is then hauled to treatment plants or injection wells, where it’s disposed of by being shot back into the ground. Exposure to radioactivity can lead to adverse health effects such as nausea, headaches, skin irritation, fatigue, and cancer. 

With fracking also comes construction, excessive truck traffic, noise, and light pollution. This has led to a rise in mental health effects including stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as sleep disruptions. 

A 2020 report published by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General contains numerous testimonials from those impacted by fracking, as well as grand jury findings on environmental crimes among shale gas operations. 

How can I be exposed?

Exposure to the hazardous materials used in fracking can occur through many pathways including breathing polluted air, drinking, bathing or cooking with contaminated water, or eating food grown in contaminated soil. Especially vulnerable populations to the harmful chemicals used in fracking include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with preexisting health conditions.

Considerations Around Scientific Certainty

While it is clear that fracking adversely impacts our health, there is still some uncertainty surrounding the exact exposure pathways and the extent that fracking can be associated with certain health effects. A compendium published in 2019 reviewed over 1,500 scientific studies and reports about the risks of fracking, and revealed that 90% found evidence of harm. Although there have been various reports of suspected pediatric cancer clusters in heavily fracked regions, there are minimal longitudinal scientific studies about the correlation between fracking and cancer. The primary reason for this is because the time between the initial exposure to a cancer-causing substance and a cancer diagnosis can take decades. Because fracking in the Marcellus Shale region is a relatively new development, this is an area of research health scientists should focus on in the coming years. While we know that drilling operations use cancer-causing chemicals, more studies are needed to understand the public’s exposure to this pollution and the extent of excess morbidity connected to fracking. 

Methane and Air & Water Quality Concerns

Figure 2. FracTracker’s photo album of air and water quality concerns

Environmental Effects

Air Quality

Fracking has caused detrimental impacts on local air quality, especially for those living within 3-5 miles of UOGD operations. Diesel emissions from truck traffic and heavy machinery used in the preparation, drilling, and production of natural gas release large amounts of toxins and particulate matter (PM). These small particles can infiltrate deeply into the respiratory system, elevating the risk for asthma attacks and cardiopulmonary disease. Other toxins released during UOGD operations include hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a toxic gas that may be present in oil and gas formations. Hydrogen sulfide can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system. BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) chemicals and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also released during fracking operations, and have been known to cause leukemia; liver damage; eye, nose and throat irritation; and headaches. While oil and gas workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from these harmful toxins, residents in surrounding communities are exposed to these hazardous conditions without protection. 

Regional air quality concerns from UOGD include tropospheric ozone, or ‘smog’. VOCs and other chemicals emitted from fracking can react with sunlight to form smog.  While ozone high in the atmosphere provides valuable protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays, ozone at ground level is hazardous for human health. Ozone may cause a range of respiratory effects like shortness of breath, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma and chronic respiratory disease symptoms. 

Expanding beyond local and regional impacts, fracking and UOGD has global implications. With increasing emissions from truck traffic, construction, and high rates of methane leaks, fracking emissions will continue to worsen the climate change crisis. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 86 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide (on a weight basis) over a 20 year period. Fracking wells can leak 40-60% more methane than conventional natural gas wells, and recent studies have indicated that emissions are significantly higher than previously thought. 

Unhealthy air quality also presents occupational exposures to oil and gas workers through frac sand mining. Frac sand, or silica, is used to hold open the fractures in the rock formations so the oil and gas can be released during the drilling process. Silica dust is extremely small in diameter and can easily be inhaled, making its way to the lower respiratory tract. Silica is classified as a human lung carcinogen, and when inhaled may lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, respiratory failure, and lung cancer. 

Water Quality

 Many states allow this brine to be reused on roads for dust control and de-icing. Regulations vary from state to state, but many areas do not require any level of pretreatment before reuse.  

Not only does fracking affect water quality, but it also depletes the quantity of available fresh water. Water use per fracking well has increased dramatically in recent years, with each well consuming over 14.3 million gallons of water on average. For more information about increasing fracking water use, click here

A summary of other water contamination pathways can be found on page 13 of Earthworks’ Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Waste Report (2019). 


In addition to air and water contamination, UOGD operations can also harm soil quality. Harmful chemicals including BTEX chemicals and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural areas near fracking operations.  Exposure can occur from eating produce grown on contaminated soil, or by consuming animals that consumed contaminated feed. These contaminants can also alter the pH and nutrient availability of the soil, resulting in decreased crop production and economic losses. Children are also at high risk of exposure to contaminated soil due to their frequent hand to mouth behavior. Lastly, the practice of frac sand mining can make land reclamation nearly impossible, leaving irreparable damage to the landscape.

Toledo Refining Co Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019

Figure 3. Toledo Refining Company Refinery in Toledo, OH, July 2019. Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance.

Report Your Environmental and Health Concerns

If you think that your health or environment have been negatively impacted by fracking operations, contact:

  • For an emergency requiring immediate local police, fire, or emergency medical services, always call 911 first
  • To report a spill or other emergency in PA, contact the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP): 1-800-541-2050 or report to your regional office. In Southwestern PA, call 412-442-4000.
  • PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Environmental Complaint Line (PA only): 1-888-723-3721 or online. (To find your state environmental or health agency, click here.)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Violations form online.
  • Join the Environmental Health Project Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry & Resource Network here

Support this work

Stay in the know