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Physicians Rally: Standing Tall for California's Health Against Big Oil's Greed

Updated: May 31

Oil and gas drilling is dangerous to our health. This November, every Californian will be asked to vote on a critically important ballot referendum related to the health harms of oil and gas drilling in our state: whether to keep Senate Bill (SB) 1137 the law, which prohibits new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, daycare centers, parks, healthcare facilities, and businesses.  


SB1137 (Gonzalez) was overwhelmingly passed by the California legislature in 2022, prohibiting new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of “sensitive receptors,” requiring that existing wells meet strengthened health, safety, and environmental requirements. However, SB-1137 never went into effect because the California Independent Petroleum Association– part of the oil lobby, is fighting the state law by spending millions of dollars to gather signatures and campaigning to repeal the law by putting it on this November’s ballot as a referendum.


The health of millions of Californians are affected by oil and gas drilling: approximately 2.7 million Californians live within 3,200 feet of an oil well (Ferrar, 2022[1]). There is extensive literature regarding a variety of known negative health impacts caused by living in proximity to oil and gas drilling. This is why spatial ‘setback rules’ are a common form of oil and gas safety regulation worldwide - they require minimum distances between oil and gas operations and occupied dwellings, schools, water sources, ecologically vulnerable areas, and other sensitive locations.[2]  Within the US, many states regulate oil and gas operations with ‘setbacks’ that typically vary between 200-1000 feet. Maryland has the largest distance requirements, at 1,000 feet. Pennsylvania requires 500-foot setbacks from unconventional oil and gas wells. Arkansas has the smallest setbacks, at 100 feet.[3]

California is the only major oil-and-gas-producing state– the seventh largest producer in the country–  with no minimum setback distance requirements between where people live, go to school, work, or seek medical care and oil drilling, according to a 2020 analysis.  Our state’s oil drilling sites have health warnings similar to cigarette boxes: “Warning: this area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm”-- but no minimum health setbacks.


The scientific evidence is unequivocal documenting the health harms of living in proximity to oil and gas drilling. Oil drilling releases toxic local air pollution including BTEX compounds (such as benzene), formaldehyde, and other carcinogenic species (Garcia-Gonzalez et al., 2019).  A 2018 study conducted in South Los Angeles found that the rates of physician-diagnosed asthma among children and adults living within 1500 feet of oil and gas drilling were roughly 6-10% higher than the county-wide average (Shamasunder et al., 2018).   A 2012 study conducted in Colorado found an increased cancer risk in people living within 2,500 feet of oil and gas drilling, specifically attributed to the volatile organic compound benzene (McKenzie et al., 2012). Pollution from oil and gas production has been linked to birth defects, miscarriage, low birth weight, and prematurity


And as with many environmental issues affecting health– the burden of oil drilling pollution doesn’t affect everyone equally. There are egregious disparities in who is affected worst by this pollution, largely running along historical red lines: disparities in exposure to oil and gas wells can be traced back to the 1930s in Los Angeles and linked to the historical policy of redlining.(Gonzalez 2022[4])


Of the 2.7 million Californians who live within half a mile (3200 feet) of an active oil or gas well, they are disproportionately Californians of color: 69% (whereas 45% of Californians overall are Black or Latinx (Johnson 2024[5]).  Black, Latinx or low-income Californians are more likely to live within the setback zone than their white counterparts.  Black Californians are more likely to live near the most intensive oil and gas operations. (Manke 2023[6])

“When we look across the state of California over the past 15 years, Black, Latinx and low-income people consistently were more likely to live near oil and gas wells,” said study first author David González, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. “Black people, in particular, were more likely to be in places that had the most intensive oil and gas production, which can lead to more exposure to harmful chemicals.” (Manke 2023)


California’s oil wells setbacks law (SB-1137) passed in 2022– that has not yet been implemented because of the November referendum– identifies 3,200 feet as the minimum safe distance between community sites and oil extraction (Purvis, 2023[7]).  This is why the health community is calling for a yes vote to "keep the law" in order to uphold SB-1137 which would prohibit new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet and require companies to adopt health, safety, and environmental requirements.


The California health community came together to protect public health by regulating the tobacco industry– such as with SB-793 banning the sale of flavored tobacco– and this year we can and must come together in full support of keeping the health and safety setbacks law (SB-1137) by standing up to the oil lobby’s effort to put profits over people’s health and safety.   A growing alliance of health professionals across the state is doing just this by joining The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California– which has been endorsed by health leaders like Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (PSR-LA),  Climate Health Now Action Fund, American Academy of Pediatricians-California and the American Lung Association.  This is a historic opportunity for health professionals to lead for the wellbeing and safety of our patients and communities.


Here’s how you can join other health colleagues in standing up to the oil lobby in the interest of health and health equity:

2. Sign the health professionals individual sign on letter and share it with

    colleagues,

3. Give a talk about the campaign to colleagues in your organization (we can

    help!)


If we don’t come together to stop the oil lobby from winning this nefarious and well-funded referendum, the health of California’s frontline community members will continue to knowingly be harmed, and the oil lobby’s audacity will grow.  This is a fight we have to win and that we can win– but it’s going to take all of us.


Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles and Climate Health Now Action Fund are members of the Health Professional Working Group to support the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California.


To learn about getting involved or with any questions please contact: Maro Kakoussian at mkakoussian@psr-la.org or Ashley McClure at ashennessy@gmail.com 


Resources:



[1] Ferrar, Kyle, MPH, Implications of a 3,200-foot setback in California.  4/2022.

[2] Sean J. Ericson, Daniel T. Kaffine, Peter Maniloff,

[4] Gonzalez, D.J.X., Nardone, A., Nguyen, A.V. et al. Historic redlining and the siting of oil and gas wells in the United States. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 33, 76–83 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-022-00434-9 

[5] Hans Johnson. California’s Population, 1/2024 https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-population/ 

[7] Purvis, D. (2023, December 1). $23 BILLION QUESTION: What created California's Orphan and Idle Well Crisis? Sierra Club. Retrieved May 14, 2024, from https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/default/files/2023-12/Idle%20Wells%20Report.pdf


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