California lawmakers approve 3200ft setbacks for new and existing wells

September 6, 2022 / and

On August 31, Senate Bill (SB) 1137, a bill that will prevent new permits for oil and gas drilling within a 3,200-feet comprehensive health and safety zone, was voted 25-10 by Senators to advance to the Governor’s desk. 

“After years of frontline community members demanding the most basic public health and safety protections, California legislators have finally listened. We’re glad the legislature has at last taken action for setbacks. This win belongs to frontline communities who’ve been fighting for setbacks for years, and it’s a big indicator that our movement is growing and that the tide is turning on Big Oil in Sacramento,” said Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, the Executive Director for the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQC). 

The bill will also create a pathway to an end to existing drilling in the setback zone by prohibiting operators from seeking rework permits and through a broad set of engineering and pollution controls.

SB 1137 protects the public health of California’s frontline communities by creating a minimum health and safety distance of 3,200 feet between sensitive receptors — such as a residence, school, childcare facility, playground, hospital, or nursing home — and an oil and gas production well.

This decision comes three years after a broad coalition of environmental justice, public health, labor, youth, and environmental organizations first launched an effort to pass a statewide setbacks policy.

“This is a victory for every single family and every single frontline community in California that has been fighting Big Oil’s drilling in our backyards for decades and pushing for setbacks for years,” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator for Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISION). “Now, we urge the Governor to end California’s legacy of environmental racism and stand with the nearly three million Californians against neighborhood drilling by signing SB 1137 immediately.” 

VISION is a coalition of environmental justice organizations from across the state. The coalition was formed to bring together community groups who were concerned with the impact of oil and gas extraction on communities in Kern and Los Angeles Counties. 

Nearly five million Californians live within one mile of an active oil or gas site and 92 percent of these residents are from low-income or Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. According to the VISION website, this is a testament to the reality of environmental racism in California today.

“For far too long the status quo for Frontline communities in California has been ‘wait a little longer and continue to be the sacrifice zone for the rest of California’s progress,’” said Cesar Aguirre, a Senior Community Organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN).  “We finally feel seen, and we are grateful. Setbacks are real protection that will not be hindered by ineffective enforcement. For the first time in a long time, I can give good news to the community leaders that have been fighting for years to make setbacks a reality.” 

Proximity to oil and gas wells has a direct correlation with various health impacts, including increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, preterm births and high-risk pregnancies, and in some cases, cancer. Additionally, oil and gas extraction produces air toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter (PM), and hydrogen sulfide. Other risks include water contamination, toxic chemical spills, and explosions.

A fact sheet for SB 1137 pointed out that California is a major oil and gas-producing state, revealing that — according to the US Energy Information Administration— the state was 7th and 14th for oil and natural gas production, respectively, among the 50 states in 2020. Kern and Los Angeles Counties account for more than 80 percent of the overall oil production in California

As of 2021, CalGEM data reported that there are approximately 125,000 active and idle oil and gas wells in the state and related production facilities located in over 180 oil and gas fields. More than 28,367 of these operational oil and gas wells are located within 3,200’ of a home, hospital, school, or other sensitive receptors.

SB 1137 will prohibit CalGEM from approving any Notice of Intention (NOI) to drill, re-drill, deepen or permanently alter the casing of the well, within a “health protection zone,” except under limited circumstances. These circumstances include:

  • to prevent or respond to public health, safety, or the environment;
  • to bring the well into compliance with federal requirements;
  • to comply with a final court order declaring that denying the approval would amount to a
  • taking of property; and
  • to plug and abandon, or re-abandon, a well.

If CalGEM approves an NOI, SB 1137 increases accountability by requiring operators of wells/facilities to provide an individual indemnity bond sufficient to pay the full cost of properly plugging and abandoning the well, and decommissioning the facility. According to the SB 1137 fact sheet, this will prevent the commonly used strategy of operators walking away from wells and leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean them up.

“Frontline community members have fought for oil and gas setbacks for over a decade. Thanks to their incredible advocacy and perseverance, they have won fundamental protections that should have never been denied to them. We have a deep appreciation for the leadership offered by Senators Gonzalez and Limón and the fantastic team of legislative leaders that have brought this campaign from the impossible to the real,” said Dan Ress, Staff Attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE). 

Estela Escoto, Arvin resident and President of Committee for a Better Arvin, revealed that she had been spending the last 10 years fighting for frontline communities like hers to have a protection zone against oil and gas wells. She said the passing of this law was a great achievement for the communities living near wells. 

“We live here in the city of Arvin. And this city, as everyone knows, is surrounded by oil wells. It has affected us because it is a very polluted place for many reasons,” Escoto stated. “The part about having those oil wells so close, there are many people who are sick with asthma, and cancer, sometimes our eyes get irritated or allergies or throats burn and we know that it is a very polluted place here.”

Escoto also mentioned that those who were concerned about losing their jobs in the oil industry due to this bill had nothing to worry about. 

“As a community, the protection zone is not for jobs to be removed, it is only to protect the community and put those wells further away and people keep their jobs but not near the community. I want the people who work in these industries to understand that it is not to affect them because the industry can put those wells further away and people continue working,” said Escoto. “If in the state of Texas there are already those protection zones, why can’t California have them as well?”

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Victoria Rodgers

Victoria Rodgers is an editor and reporter for Kern Sol News. Born in Bakersfield, CA, she received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Rockford University in Illinois. She can be reached at