While Americans are sheltering in their homes in order to protect their health, federal agencies are working hard to unravel other safeguards for them.
On March 28 the Environmental Protection Agency issued an order that absolves polluters from federal enforcement of many reporting duties required under the laws governing our air, water and lands. The oil and gas industry, in particular, asked for regulations to be relaxed.
The memorandum from the EPA stipulates that industry must document violations of operations such as integrity testing or air quality monitoring, but are only required to report if asked, letting them off the hook if something is wrong.
For example, oil refineries are mandated to monitor releases of benzene, a chemical which is known to cause cancer. Last year at least 10 refineries across the U.S. exceeded allowed thresholds.
The memo also abdicates enforcement of other violations to state and local governments, which vary widely in their approaches to polluters. It is not known at this time how California will respond to this dereliction of duty at the federal level.
Worse, the EPA issued another order on March 29 which will allow refineries to stop producing their less polluting summer blends. And on March 31, the feds dealt clean air another blow by revoking the fuel economy standards put in place by President Obama in 2012, the biggest U.S. effort toward combatting climate change and cleaning our air.
This is part of a continuing effort to not only unravel all of Obama's legacy, but also do the bidding of the oil industry, which includes pulling out of the Paris climate accords and dismantling the Clean Power Plan which would have reduced carbon pollution from power plants.
California has especially been in the crosshairs. In September, the administration announced that it was revoking California's waiver under the Clean Air Act to set stricter standards for vehicle emissions. Also targeted are the state's Zero Emissions Vehicle policy and cap-and-trade system, all lynchpins in our ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus become a model for the U.S. and the world on tackling climate change.
The timing could not be worse. According to John Balmes, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at UCSF, "There is fairly strong evidence that air pollution increases the risk of acute low respiratory infections. And it may have contributed to the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan."
As we battle a new public health threat, we must be cognizant of the one that already existed — climate change. We will pull through these dark times using science to combat the coronavirus. We cannot turn our backs on the science that already exists to keep us from the dangers of a warming planet.
In 2006, a 3.1-magnitude earthquake on the San Cayetano Fault damaged a well in the Ojai Oil Field which began spewing a mixture of brine water, oil and other chemicals at the rate of 210 gallons per minute. Summit School, with a population of approximately 80 K-6 students, was within 1,000 feet of the toxic mix.
Because the well casing break was very difficult to get under control, it continued to flow for three months. Finally, after accruing a cost of $4 million, the rupture was stopped.
During the entire time the well was being worked on, no one at the school was notified of the disaster unfolding on the hillside upwind from it. Children continued to play on the playground, teachers taught physical education, parents with babies dropped off and picked up their students.
Where was the Ventura County Environmental Health Department? Where was the state agency in charge of oil and gas?
After the well was capped and the drill rigs and heavy equipment all cleared out, a parent of children at the school was told of the disaster by an oilfield worker. Teachers, parents and staff were collectively horrified. There was never any follow-up study or even a quick check-in to see how the children of Summit School were doing.
I was an elementary school principal in Ojai Unified School District for 22 years. In my role, among other things, I was responsible for ensuring the health and safety of children assigned to my school. I am also on the board of Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG).
I believe the County of Ventura is not providing enough protections for children in schools near oil production.
The draft Environmental Impact Report for the county’s General Plan Update proposes an increased buffer between schools and homes of 1,500. That is inadequate. Studies show adverse health impacts from oil and gas facilities at distances of at least half a mile. Buffers should be increased from the currently proposed 1,500 feet to 2,500 feet.
The reasoning given for this is to allow a potential operator, who wants to drill an oil well without directional drilling, to place the oil well anywhere on the drill pad.
This stretches common sense. If the future operator can drill horizontally from 1,500 feet away as stated in the draft, why not from 2,500 feet? There is a difference in the cost of drilling, but the risk to the health and safety of young children far outweighs the small economic cost to an operator or two.
Many young children suffer from asthma and skin allergies. All children love to run and play at recess. It is critical that those sensitive children are protected from unwanted and unnecessary exposure to air toxins that may cause serious complications leading to poor school attendance and miserable days of recovery time.
In my last assignment before retiring, I was principal at a school with three classrooms of special needs children, some of whom were medically fragile and who suffered from life-threatening childhood illnesses. This latter group of children were often highly sensitive to changes in their environment and the reactions they suffered were sometimes immediate and very serious.
I remember asking one mother of such a child, “When would you like me to call 911?” Her response was, “Any time you want to.” As chilling as that sounds, it was real.
A setback distance of 2,500 feet, roughly one-third of a mile, is about all we can do to protect the health of young children at a school near active or idle oil and gas activities.
We owe it to them to provide a safe and healthy atmosphere for learning.
None of us would walk out of a restaurant after eating a huge meal without paying and then expect others to clean up our mess. But that is what the state's oil companies are doing by abandoning wells and expecting taxpayers to pick up the cost.
Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas was dismayed to learn that oil companies have given the state only $110 million to clean up onshore oil and gas wells when the estimated tab is closer to $6 billion.
Across much of California, fossil-fuel companies are leaving thousands of oil and gas wells unplugged and idle, potentially threatening the health of people living nearby and, when the time comes for the environmental cleanup, taxpayers will be handed a multibillion-dollar bill.
Close to home, the state has already had to take over responsibility for dozens of wells on both Rincon Island in Ventura County and Platform Holly in Santa Barbara County.
A recent study by the California Council on Science and Technology reveals 35,000 wells sitting idle. Many sit near the low-income neighborhoods in west Ventura. According to FracTracker, Ventura County has 2,022 idle wells as of the end of 2019. That is the fourth highest in California.
People living near unplugged oil and gas wells face exposure to hazardous chemicals such as benzene and methane. According to a Los Angeles Times-Public Integrity analysis, more than 2 million Californians live near an unplugged oil or gas well, with Latino, black and low-income people living nearby at a slightly higher rate than the California population as a whole.
California recently beefed up its regulations to make sure more cleanup money is available, but those measures don’t go far enough. CFROG is calling for a study on exactly how many orphan and failing wells there are in Ventura County and what the prospects are for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels.
We believe the price tag for cleanup will increase as the industry continues its decline. California oil production has fallen nearly 60 percent from its peak in 1985.
One of Ventura County's and the state’s largest producers, California Resources Corporation (CRC) is responsible for the third-most idle wells of any company in the state and faces cleanup costs larger than its total market value. If CRC were to go under, other companies would probably buy some of the wells, but many could become the problem of state taxpayers.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors needs to address this dilemma as it updates its General Plan this year to lay out policies for the next 20 years. One step would be to require abandonment of one well for each new well permit that is issued. Other cities have done this.
Taxpayers should not be picking up the tab for the fossil fuel industry.
The purple dots represent idle wells in West Ventura County. Source: Los Angeles Times
We have long known Ventura County was extremely vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet. Our fires, droughts and threatened coastal infrastructure put us at risk.
But it was still shocking to learn from a report in the Washington Post that we are the fastest-warming county in the lower 48 states. With a temperature increase of 2.6 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, our warming has already exceeded the 2 degrees Celsius threshold set by the Paris Climate agreement.
We have seen the catastrophic effects of a warming world in the fierce winds that whipped the Thomas and Woolsey fires out of control and we will not forget the suffering it caused our families and neighbors.
Then we learned from a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that our coastal waters are acidifying at twice the global rate, threatening life in the ocean and with it our fishing industry. This is a lesser known effect of a changing climate.
The push for policies that will slow the catastrophic effects of climate change needs to begin everywhere and at once.
Ventura County must make a bold statement about climate with its General Plan Update. This is the document that sets the policies that drive all land use decisions for the next 20 years. Indeed, at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting dozens of speakers asked for more local policies that will help the county reduce emissions.
Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) has analyzed the county’s General Plan draft with the help of nationally recognized air quality expert Dr. Steven Colome and the prestigious environmental law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP.
While its goals are laudable, the county’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) fails to provide enough emissions reduction to meet the state-mandated climate goals. The plan is seriously incomplete and lacks the technical and scientific input needed.
Climate change is caused by fossil fuel production and consumption. The CAP addresses the consumption side by merely encouraging, but not requiring, electric fuel vehicles and clean power for homes and businesses. But Ventura County is the third largest oil and gas producing county in California. As such, we must do our part to reduce oil production through thoughtful, rigorous policy to phase it out. This is not addressed.
The county is accepting comments through February on the Environmental Impact Report that accompanies the update. To submit your comments, go to https://vcrma.org/vc2040.org/review. CFROG has a list of talking points to use at www.cfrog.org.
We have seen that our state's early, groundbreaking policies to reduce emissions have spread to other states, the nation and the world. Here in Ventura County, where the effects of climate change have become frighteningly real, we are motivated now more than ever.
A company named Real Estate Recovery Capital has purchased the controversial Petrochem property north of Ventura from its longtime owner. But the broad coalition of 13 organizations led by CFROG will keep right on vehemently insisting that this site in the gateway to the beautiful Ojai Valley be put to a use befitting its sensitive river habitat.
From its inception in the 1950s as a fertilizer manufacturer, to a later use as a refinery for crude oil which processed 20,000 barrels a day and stored hundreds of thousands more in tanks, the property has been controversial and harmful to nearby Ventura Avenue residents and the Ojai Valley airshed.
Activists, including CFROG and other community groups, packed a small conference room on Oct. 14 to protest the last owner's proposal for the site, an auto and contractor storage yard. Our group, the Petrochem Appeal Alliance (PAA), believes it is time for this ecologically sensitive area to move from polluting uses of the land to those which contribute to sustainable practices and preservation of this valuable natural area.
We are glad to see it change hands away from the original owner who allowed a highly polluting operation along the Ventura River.
The following organizations filed a joint appeal of the decision by the Ventura County Planning Director to approve a transportation and contractor services storage yard for the site:
Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas
Environmental Coalition of Ventura County
Food and Water Action
Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
Friends of the Ventura River
Ventura Land Trust
Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation
California Trout, Inc.
Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter
Westside Community Council
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura
Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE)
CFROG will monitor proposals for this site and advocate for our residents.