Screen Shot 2020-07-08 at 10.22.49 AM Elected Officials to Protect California at the State Capitol, pre-pandemic, demanding an end to fracking. Photo by Christian Brock.

By Ramona du Houx

Amid a global health pandemic, with COVID-19 targeting the respiratory systems of over 200,000 in the state, Californian residents may soon be exposed to compounding respiratory threats from the result of more fracking operations.

During this unprecedented time when Californians are at their most vulnerable, big oil and gas companies have been lobbying Sacramento with greater intensity. Deviously, they have taken advantage of the pandemic, the just demonstrations and the holiday to push forward new fracking projects, even though Governor Gavin Newsom put a moratorium in place last year. This further endangers the health and wellbeing of thousands of Californians.

The fracking industry was able to achieve their goals because Newsom walked back his promised goals of clean energy by 2045 by handing them free passes, in the form of fracking permits.

At any moment 256 additional fracking permits could be issued in our earthquake prone state.

But between April and June 1, California’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) issued 36 new fracking permits. On July 2, just as people were leaving for the Fourth of July weekend CalGEM issued 12 more fracking permits to Chevron in the Lost Hills oilfield of Kern County. 

“The oil and gas industry feared the drop in the prices of their products – worsened by the pandemic. They’ve been busy trying to ensure our dependency on fossil fuels by taking advantage of this life-threatening virus. They’ve been successful getting the federal government to roll back environmental protections and lifting restrictions to allow for more drilling. They’re gambling with our lives. We shouldn’t needlessly be putting more people at risk,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, Elected Officials to Protect California steering committee member. 

The industry is not a money maker. Fracking has much higher variable costs than traditional oil, and the well production is very front loaded. This means fracking producers need to drill new wells all the time just to maintain production. They were indebted before the pandemic. 

Elected Officials across the state are taking the issue seriously. One group, the Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA) is asking why Newsom is, “helping a failing business, especially one that endangers the health of citizens more during a pandemic?”

EOPCA and residents alike had high hopes CA would meet the state’s clean energy goals at the beginning of Newsom’s term. In 2018, the new governor pledged to protect vulnerable communities to push California beyond even the guidelines of the Paris Climate Accords to rely on entirely renewable energy sources by 2045.

The governor has upheld science and continues to promote public health when it comes to the COVID-19 virus, asking residents to wear masks. But when it comes to fracking, Newsom and science are not on the same page. Mayor Heidi Harmon also asks him to look at the evidence that shows pollution particulates cause life threatening illnesses and to stop fracking, for unwittingly he is putting lives at risk.

“I’m proud to serve on the steering committee of Elected Official to Protect California. Over 310 of us have already signed a letter asking the governor to take action now to ban fracking. I believe Governor Newson does want to protect the health and wellbeing of all Californians. I know we are in an emergency and COVID-19 is his priority. However, climate change is an emergency too and anything that contributes to it should stop. We must stop issuing any more fracking permits. Now more than ever, we need to protect the health and safety of all our people,” added Mayor Heidi Harmon. 

One of these permits has gone to the Aliso Canyon site in Los Angeles County, “the site of a record-setting methane blowout that spewed heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and sickened nearby residents.” Newsom had pledged to permanently close the storage site, but during the confusion of the pandemic, CalGEM approved the permit. 

“We need to let the governor know the serious threat fracking represents, as it adds to temperatures rising enabling the possibility of more pandemics. Together we are stronger. Together we can convince him not to issue any new permits. It’s time the state put our lives first, not the interests of the oil and gas industry. We need to ban all fracking now,” concluded Mayor Heidi Harmon. 

In order to extract natural gas and to dispose of their waste frack fluid, fracking requires pumping millions of gallons of fluid into the ground, contaminating drinking water and lubricating fault lines, which drastically increases seismic activity. An extremely seismically active state like California cannot handle the increased risk of earthquakes, especially under the pressures of living with COVID-19. 

Despite extensive evidence, the Newsom administration still refuses to acknowledge the impact of fracking on the environment and local communities. A Harvard study points to the starkly inequitable burden of the virus and ambient pollution, noting, “communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollutants and are more likely to face a ‘pollution burden’ . . . Particularly important for hospitals in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white communities.”

The oil and gas industry’s blatant contribution to environmental racism is particularly insidious when combined with the “statistical link between COVID-19 deaths and other diseases associated with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.”

Californians with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, especially those in low-income and minority communities, should not bear the burden of new fracking sites known to aggravate these medical ailments. Those exposed to fracking also face a higher risk of cancer due to the release of carcinogenic gases such as benzene, neurological damage on account of volatile organic compounds, and fetal development harm.

California is the fifth largest economy in the world. The evidence shows that the state does not need to invest in a failing business that puts some of its citizens at a higher health risk.