Fracking In California During a Pandemic

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

In April, for the first time in nine months, California regulators gave 24 permits for fracking projects in state's San Joaquin Valley. The region is the nation's most polluted air basin. Fracking causes airborne particulate pollution and the formation of ground level ozone, creating a respiratory disease and other health issues. Allowing fracking at a time when the world struggles with a pandemic that attacks the lungs is a bad idea.

California regulators issued permits for hydraulic fracturing in April for the first time in nine months, the Desert Sun reports. The 24 permits for hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, were issued to Aera Energy to do oil well stimulation in Kern County.

There are 282 applications for permits that are still on hold. Experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are evaluating each permit application and “conducting a rigorous technical review to verify geological claims made by well operators in the application process,” said Teresa Schilling, spokeswoman for the California Geologic Energy Management (CalGEM)
division.

California’s relationship to fracking reads like a soap opera. In July 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom fired the state’s number one oil regulator, Ken Harris after reports that fracking permits doubled since he took office. In November of that same year, Newsom announced a moratorium on all new fracking permits and CalGEM requested that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory assess its permit review process. “This review, which assesses the completeness of each proposed hydraulic fracturing permit, is taking place as an interim measure while a broader audit is completed of CalGEM’s permitting process for well stimulation,” the California state agency said in a statement.

Fracking in the nation’s worst air basin

Kern County is the southernmost county in the San Joaquin Valley, a region known to have the worst air basin in the U.S. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2020 gives Kern County an F for the state of its air. Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County, ranked number one for annual particle pollution, number two for 24-hour particle pollution, and number three for high ozone days.

Fracking causes airborne pollutants at and near fracking sites that are known to cause health problems, including cancer, and harm to the nervous, respiratory, and immune systems, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The rapid expansion of fracking, both in areas with existing oil and gas operations and previously undrilled areas, can lead to an increase in the type of pollution generally found at conventional oil and gas development and to other pollutants specific to fracking, such as silica sand, fracking chemicals, and flowback wastewater,” the report states.

Fracking related processes release nitrogen oxides and VOCs, which form ozone in sunlight. Being exposed to ozone causes a slew of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including asthma. Kern County has the second-highest rate of asthma among children in California. “Asthma is a condition of special importance due to Kern County’s historically poor air quality,” states a report by Kern County Public Health Services. “Poor air quality can aggravate asthma symptoms,” the report mentions. Controlling air pollution is key to bringing down asthma rates.

People with respiratory problems such as asthma are “at a higher risk for severe disease from COVID-19,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Allowing fracking during a pandemic makes little sense. It is time for Governor Newsom to live up to his campaign promise to ban fracking. “Approving 24 new fracking permits in the middle of a pandemic is not a good look,” as Food and Water Watch put it. Indeed it is not. 

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