In summary

The move comes after environmentalists lambasted Newsom for failing to tackle California’s oil and gas production. The oil industry called it an “illegal mandate” and vowed to fight it. Fracking accounts for only 17% of California’s oil production.

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California will stop approving new oil fracking by 2024 under an executive order that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today with little fanfare following months of confusing mixed messages. 

The order is a blow to oil companies in California, but a limited victory for environmentalists who have been pushing Newsom to do more to combat fossil fuels, climate change and pollution in disadvantaged communities.

The controversial practice has long raised concerns from nearby residents and environmental groups. In fracking, chemicals and water are injected into underground rocks at high pressures to crack them open and unlock the oil or gas.

In signing the order, Newsom contradicted a claim he made in September when he said he can’t legally ban fracking on his own. Instead, he asked the Legislature to act. “We simply don’t have that authority. That’s why we need the Legislature to approve it,” he said on Sept. 23. 

Newsom’s move comes a week after the Legislature rejected a bill that would have banned fracking. 

The governor has been sending inconsistent messages about fracking for months, infuriating environmentalists: In September, he asked lawmakers to send him a bill banning fracking. But when one was introduced, he never publicly threw his weight behind it. The bill set off a feud between environmentalists and labor unions, which are both influential constituencies with Democrats, and it was voted down in its first committee

Oil industry spokesperson Kevin Slagle said Newsom is “taking a great legal risk” in using his executive power to ban fracking permits.

“This is an illegal mandate and we will use every means to fight it,” said Slagle of the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil and gas companies.

About 95% of fracking occurs in the San Joaquin Valley, nearly all of it in four Kern County oil fields. 

Fracking accounts for a small amount — 17% — of California’s total oil and gas production, and the governor’s action has no impact on the rest.

Newsom’s order directs the California Geologic Energy Management Division, the agency that oversees oil operations, to immediately begin drafting rules that will stop issuing new fracking permits by January 2024. 

“The climate crisis is real, and we continue to see the signs every day,” Newsom said in a statement. “I’ve made it clear I don’t see a role for fracking in that future and similarly, believe that California needs to move beyond oil.”

The order will not ban existing fracking, so fracked wells already in operation can continue. About 150 wells per month undergo hydraulic fracturing in California, according to a 2015 study

But Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the riskiest process related to fracking is the drilling of new wells, and that will stop in 2024. Existing permits for wells must be used within one year, he said.

“Those wells that have been fracked presumably will continue to produce oil in coming years. But the impact or the activities that we’re concerned about, which is essentially the violent explosion of chemicals through the subsurface, will end,” he said. “Period. Full stop.”  

Fracking a well “involves actually one specific time limited event. Think about this as essentially shooting down a cocktail of chemicals and sand and water and sometimes acid underground, in a fairly violent way that fractures the subsurface,” he said.

Environmentalists say it’s not enough when action to battle climate change and pollution from fossil fuels is needed immediately. Instead, they said Newsom needs to end all oil and gas production in the state and require health and safety buffers around existing wells.

“Directing his regulatory agencies to do the work over two and a half years that the governor can do today is more of the dodging we’ve seen from Newsom during his entire tenure,” said Food & Water Watch California Director Alexandra Nagy.

In addition to the fracking order, Newsom directed the California Air Resources Board to consider phasing out all oil extraction by 2045, when the state is tasked with achieving carbon neutrality under an executive order signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown. 

“We believe that we’ve got all the policies in place that will mean that we don’t need oil by 2045,” said California EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld.

“The impact or the activities that we’re concerned about, which is essentially the violent explosion of chemicals through the subsurface, will end. Period. Full stop.” 

Wade crowfoot, Natural Resources Secretary

An environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, sued California in February for approving nearly 2,000 permits for new oil and gas wells, including some fracking projects, in 2020. It alleged that the California oil regulators violated environmental laws by failing to conduct analyses of environmental and health effects before issuing the permits.

Newsom is likely facing a recall election later this year and is working to unify Democrats to oppose the GOP-led effort to oust him from office. The failure of the fracking bill appeared to shield him from having to choose sides in a politically fraught fight.

“We recognize the threat to California’s economy and our workers in this ban, and we will fight for them,” said oil industry spokesman Slagle. ”We’re not sure what changed. Maybe the politics around him (Newsom) have changed.”

Other states have already banned fracking, including New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted an executive order in 2014. Washington and Maryland banned it through legislation. 

“I think most everyone understands that the clearest, most direct way to actually ban fracking would be through a law change. But since that hasn’t happened, the governor has made clear we need to use our regulatory authority to do so,” Crowfoot said. 

Brown refused to ban fracking despite intense pressure from environmentalists, saying it made more sense to prioritize policies that would reduce the demand for oil.  

Some San Joaquin Valley Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature criticized Newsom today, saying it would lead to lost jobs in the region.

But other lawmakers urged more sweeping action because other forms of oil extraction — cyclic steam and steam and water flooding — that are more plentiful in the state threaten the health of people in nearby communities.

“While we believe an earlier end date is appropriate, at least having a set end date will trigger the long overdue conversation about what a transition away from oil looks like. To date, political paralysis has prevented that conversation from happening,” Senators Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, and Monique Limón, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, who introduced the failed fracking ban bill, said in a statement.

Banning fracking would have minimal effect on California’s planet-warming greenhouse gases. All of California’s oil and gas production emits only about 4% of the state’s total greenhouse gases, and fracking would be a very small fraction of that. That’s because fracking emits less greenhouse gases per barrel of oil than other types of production.

If fracked oil is replaced with other oil, greenhouse gas emissions may actually increase, according to a 2015 report by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Council on Science and Technology. “If demand for oil remained constant, the replacement fuel could have larger greenhouse gas emissions,” the report says.

Oil companies say they are working on solar, wind and other cleaner energy sources but that they need fracked oil to meet consumers’ demand.

“We recognize that we are in an energy transition…But as we work together to get there, bans and mandates are only going to limit what is possible,” Slagle said. “Eliminating any form of production just means we have to rely on crude oil coming from other sources. If it’s not produced here, it’s coming from somewhere.”

“This is an illegal mandate and we will use every means to fight it.”

KEVIN SLAGLE, Oil industry spokesperson

Newsom’s staff said fracking permits in California already undergo “the most stringent (reviews) in the country,” involving experts from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. CalGem is working on new health and safety regulations for the wells.

But environmentalists say oil wells still pose a threat to people nearby.

“Communities need immediate relief to the heath assaults of oil and gas extraction in the form of an immediate 2500 foot health and safety buffer. Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Martha Dina Agruello, executive director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles.

The biggest concerns about fracking focus on its use of chemicals, potential groundwater contamination and emissions of hazardous substances that can waft into nearby communities. There is little monitoring and data on what chemicals are used, so the extent of the pollution and health impacts is largely  unknown. 

“Operators have unrestricted use of many hazardous and uncharacterized chemicals in hydraulic fracturing,” the Lawrence Berkeley scientists said in their 2015 report. “No agency has systematically investigated possible impacts.”

They urged the state to limit use of hazardous chemicals and ban injection of fracking wastewater into the ground or storing it in pits that can pollute groundwater. “These practices should stop,” they wrote.

Fracking has been highly controversial since production surged around the world about two decades ago. The dramatic increase was driven by industry developing new techniques to produce oil and gas from previously untapped sources.

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...

Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...