California regulators approve surge in well permits
FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog have uncovered new data showing an increase in oil and gas permitting by California regulators in 2019 compared to 2018, calling into question Governor Newsom’s climate commitment. Even more concerning, this investigation found that state regulators are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate.
FracTracker Alliance’s new report with Consumer Watchdog compares oil and gas permitting policies of the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration with that of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.
The former lieutenant governor to Brown, Governor Newsom has set out to make a name for himself. As part of stepping out of Brown’s shadow, Newsom has expressed support for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Newsom’s 2020 budget plan includes environmental justice measures and an unprecedented investment to plan for this transition that includes investments in job training.
Yet five months into Governor Newsom’s first term, regulators are on track to allow companies to drill and “frack” more new oil and gas wells than Brown allowed in 2018. The question now is: will Governor Newsom actually take the next step that Brown could not, and prioritize the reduction of oil extraction in California?
In addition, the Consumer Watchdog report reveals that eight California regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate. FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog are calling for the the removal of DOGGR officials with conflicts of interest, and an immediate freeze on new well approval. Read the letter to Governor Newsom here.
Governor Brown’s Legacy
Around the world, Brown is recognized as a climate warrior. His support of solar energy technology and criticisms of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry was ultimately unique in the late 1970’s.
In 1980, during his second term as Governor and short presidential campaign, he decried that fellow democrat and incumbent President Jimmy Carter had made a “Faustian bargain” with the oil industry. Since then, he has continued to push for state controls on greenhouse gas emissions. To end his political career, Brown hosted an epic climate summit in San Francisco, California, which brought together climate leaders, politicians, and scientists from around the world.
While Brown championed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, his policies in California were contradictory. While front-line communities called for setbacks from schools, playgrounds, hospitals and other sensitive receptors, Brown ignored these requests. Instead he sought to spur oil production in the state. Brown even used state funds to explore his private properties for oil and mineral resources that could be exploited for personal profit.
Brown’s terms in the Governor’s office show trends of increasing oil and gas production. The chart in Figure 1 shows that during his first term (1979-1983), California oil extraction grew towards a peak in production. Then in 2011 at the start of Brown’s second term (2011-2019), crude oil production again inflected and continued to increase through 2015, ending a 25-year period of relatively consistent reduction.
We are therefore interested in looking at existing data to understand if moving forward, Governor Newsom will continue Brown’s legacy of support for California oil production. We start by looking at the first half of 2019, the beginning of Governor Newsom’s term, to see if his administration will also allow the oil and gas industry to increase extraction in California.
Figure 1. Chart of California’s historic oil production, from the EIA
The FracTracker Alliance has collaborated with the non-profit Consumer Watchdog to review records of oil and gas well permits issued in 2018 and thus far into 2019.
Records of approved permits were obtained from the CA Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Weekly summaries of approved permits for the 52 weeks of 2018 and the first 22 weeks of 2019 (January 1st-June 3rd) were compiled, cleaned, and analyzed. Notices of well stimulations were also included in this analysis. The data is mapped here in the Consumer Watchdog report, as well as in more detail below in the map in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Map of California’s Permits, 2018 and 2019
At FracTracker, we are known for more than simply mapping, so we have, of course, extracted all the information that we can from this data. The dataset of DOGGR permits included details on the type of permit as well as when, where, and who the permits were granted. With this information we were able to answer several questions.
Of particular note and worthy of prefacing the data analysis was the observation of the very low numbers of permits granted in the LA Basin and Southern California, as compared to the Central Valley and Central Coast of California.
First, what are the types of permits issued?
Regulators require operators to apply for permits for a number of activities at well sites. This dataset includes permits to drill wells, including re-drilling existing wells, permits to rework existing wells, and permits to “sidetrack”. Well stimulations using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing also require permits, as outline in CA State Bill 4.
How many permits have regulators issued?
In 2018, DOGGR approved 4,368 permits, including 2,124 permits to drill wells. In 2019, DOGGR approved 2,366 permits from January 1 – June 3, including 1,212 permits to drill wells. At that rate, DOGGR will approve 5,607 total permits by the end of 2019, including 2,872 wells.
That is an increase of 28.3% for total permits and an increase of 35.3% for drilling oil and gas wells.
DOGGR also issued 222 permits for well stimulations in 2018. So far in 2019, DOGGR has issued 191 permits for well stimulations, an increase of 103.2%.
Who is applying for permits?
As shown in Table 1 below, the operators Chevron U.S.A. Inc., Aera Energy LLC ( a joint conglomerate of Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil), and Berry Petroleum Company, LLC dominate the drilling permit counts for both 2018 and 2019.
Aera has obtained the most drilling permits thus far into 2019, while Chevron obtained the most permits in 2018, almost 100 more than Aera. In 2019, Chevron was issued almost 3 times the amount of rework permits as Aera, and both have outpaced Berry Petroleum.
Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator
Where are the permits being issued?
Data presented in Table 2 indicate which fields are being targeted for drilling and rework permits. While the 2019 data represents less than half the year, the number of drilling permits is almost equal to the total drilling permit count for 2018.
Majority players in the Midway-Sunset field are Berry Petroleum and Chevron. South Belridge is dominated by Aera Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Cymric field is mostly Chevron and Aera Energy; McKittrick is mostly Area Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Kern River field, which has by far the most reworks (most likely due to its massive size and age) is entirely Chevron.
Table 2. Permit Counts by Field
The details of this analysis show that DOGGR has allowed for a modest increase in permits for oil and gas wells in 2019. The increase in well stimulations in 2019 is estimated to be larger, at 103.2%.
There was the consideration that this could be a seasonal phenomenon since we extrapolated from data encompassing just less than the first half of the year. But upon reviewing data for several other years, that does not seem to be the case. The general trend was instead increasing numbers of permits as each year progresses, with smaller permit counts through the first half of the year.
Oil prices do not provide much explanation either. The chart in Figure 3 shows that crude prices were higher in 2018 than they have been for the vast majority of 2019. The increase in permits could be the result of oil and gas operators like Chevron and Aera anticipating a stricter regulatory climate under Governor Newsom. Operators may be securing as many permits as possible, while DOGGR is still liberally issuing them. This could be a consequence of the Governor’s recognition of the need for California to begin a managed decline of fossil fuel production and end oil drilling in California.
Could this be an early industry death rattle?
Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019
July 12, 2019 Update
Governor Gavin Newsom has reacted swiftly to the report by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker regarding findings of conflicts of interest within DOGGR and the quickening rate of well permitting, by firing California’s top oil and gas regulator Ken Harris.
“The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction. In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly.”
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance