How to live better with oil in California
Communities living near oil and gas wells should be involved in decision-making about leases and trained to identify leaks and spills.
By Jalal Awan
Jalal Awan is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an energy and climate policy consultant at the Utility Reform Network (TURN).
Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, special for CalMatters
Aaron Clark Ginsberg is a social scientist at RAND and a professor of policy analysis at Pardee RAND Graduate School, who studies how to manage crises, including oil and gas disasters.
During his speech earlier this month announcing a ban on Russian oil, President Joe Biden also said that US oil companies were on track for a record year of production and that the oil industry has “9,000 permits drilling now”.
California might, at first glance, seem above this sudden rush to home-grown oil drilling — with all its electric cars and solar panels. But by many definitions, it’s still an oil state: the nation’s seventh largest oil producer, California ranks third in oil refining capacity and meets more than 40% of its energy needs using natural gas.
Oil wells and gas lines leak and spill, and the effects on the communities around them are far more widespread and long-lasting than most people realize. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf Coast in 2010, for example, devastated two industries critical to communities – tourism and fishing – which in turn have been linked to an increase in mental health issues in the region. . Problems like this can linger for years and years after a spill, long after cleanup efforts have ended.
But in many ways, events like Deepwater Horizon, or California’s 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak and last year’s Orange County oil spill, are relatively easy to solve. They capture the attention of the media, the public and regulators. So-called “silent” chronic spills can go unnoticed for decades, and their impacts are mostly felt by underserved populations.
For example, a recent study found a link between exposure to oil and gas well sites and spontaneous preterm births, largely in Hispanic and black women. Another study looking at birth records from 2006 to 2015 in rural California linked proximity to oil and gas wells with low birth weight babies and other adverse birth outcomes.
And yet, despite all the risks, the communities most affected by drilling, refining and transportation remain largely excluded from the complex system of state and federal decision-making that oversees oil and gas licensing. Existing oil and gas leases are largely top-down and isolated from affected communities in ways the federal government says needs reform.
Such reforms could begin with revisiting historic 100-year-old oil and gas concession structures to ensure community involvement – from the planning stages, to the drilling itself, long after decommissioning. of the well well” can release toxic emissions).
There is already a good model for involving communities in local air quality monitoring. In 2018, the state formed the Community Air Protection Program, or CAPP. Although still an ongoing experiment, the program may be a model of how community process can be used to monitor local pollution and develop mitigation plans.
The Community Air Program uses existing local networks, such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project and the South LA’s Coalition for Clean Air, to serve as a bridge between government air pollution agencies such as the 35 regional air monitoring districts and the California Air Resources Board, identify local pollution hotspots and tailor community mitigation strategies. For example, the Coalition for Clean Air is installing low-cost air quality sensors in the residences of community volunteers to identify peaks in particulate emissions, such as gas flaring at the nearby oil refinery. ‘Exxon Mobil.
The statutory authority that oversees oil and gas operations in the state, the California State Lands Commission, could learn from the community’s clean air program. It could enact regulations to give communities living near oil and gas wells training and tools to help local agencies identify leaks and spills — crowdsourcing leak detection before it becomes a larger scale problem.
Revamping the current top-down structure for regulating oil operations to include a community process for monitoring, identifying and developing mitigation solutions can not only empower local communities, but also help agencies and companies avoid costly and deadly disasters. As California grapples with the question of balancing environmental stewardship with the recently renewed focus on “local oil,” lawmakers could look to local communities for the best answers to prevent future oil disasters.