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Environmentalists Demand Gavin Newsom Join Biden’s Halt of Oil and Gas Drilling

The California governor has so far approved more than 8,000 fossil fuel permits on private and state lands.




Oil field near Lost Hills, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Out of all the Biden administration’s suite of executive orders on climate signed on Wednesday, advocates in California have latched on to one in particular: a promise to halt new oil and gas lease sales on public lands and offshore and to review existing leases.

Some of them hope that the move could inspire similar action by California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, which has so far approved more than 8,000 oil and gas permits on private and state lands.

The president’s order, which directs the secretary of the interior to pause on entering into leases, will itself not have a huge effect on oil and gas production in California; production on federal lands accounts for less than 10% of all drilling in the state. In December, the Trump administration sold leases on seven parcels of land totaling 4,133 acres, all in Kern County. It was the first federal lease sale in California in eight years.


Climate advocates hope to leverage Biden’s recent executive order to stop oil and gas production on lands where the Trump administration already sold leases.

But the Trump administration had previously announced that the Bureau of Land Management could pursue lease sales for 1.2 million acres of land in California, including 400,000 acres of public land, prompting Reps. James Panetta, Julia Brownley and Salud Carbajal, all Democrats with California congressional districts, to reintroduce legislation supporting a ban on oil and gas operations for public lands.

Advocates are also hoping to leverage the executive order to stop oil and gas production on lands where the Trump administration already sold leases.

“None of the companies [that hold leases from the December sale] have started exploratory drilling, and we think the combination of the pause and the announced review process will help us push for those leases to be blocked from development,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program.

According to Manuel, climate advocacy organizations nationwide intend to file lawsuits to prevent development on federal lands that were leased to oil and gas companies by the Trump administration.

Gov. Newsom has projected the image of a climate advocate, but his administration granted 1,709 new oil and gas well production permits in 2020, according to FracTracker.

“We’re looking for the best foothold on how to legally challenge those leases,” Manuel said. One possible legal argument is that developing the wells “would contradict the climate goals outlined by the Biden administration.”

Yet the fight over oil and gas leasing in the state is largely unfolding on state land, where 90% of oil and gas operations take place.

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Gov. Newsom has projected the image of a climate advocate,  pledging in October that the state would ban all hydrofracturing by 2024. At the same time, his administration granted 1,709 new oil and gas well production permits in 2020, according to the FracTracker alliance—a 116.6% increase over the previous year.

After this story was published, a spokesperson for the Newsom administration reached out to Capital & Main to dispute FracTracker’s numbers, stating that in 2020, permits to drill new wells (all well types) in California “were down nearly 23% compared to 2019.” In addition, the spokesperson said, 3,238 permits were issued to safely plug and permanently seal wells in 2020, “outpacing the number of permits issued for new drilling permits by approximately 65%.”

Climate and environmental justice advocates are hoping that the commitment of action from President Biden will push state officials to halt oil and gas production.

“Newsom has the power to stop new well approvals under state law,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “He could put in a health buffer zone [a physical space between oil and gas operations and human environments such as a residential neighborhood]. The political pressure on him will only increase to take similarly decisive action.”

Siegel added that the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the Newsom administration for what it alleges are illegal well permit approvals that did not properly assess environmental impacts.

Buffer zones, also called setbacks, are a recurring demand among environmental justice advocates in California, based on studies indicating that living near oil and gas operations harms human health.

A state bill that would have mandated a half mile setback between wells and frontline communities stalled in the senate last year. The oil and gas industry spent more than $35 million lobbying the legislature in 2019 and 2020, much of it in an effort to tank the setbacks law; the California Independent Petroleum Association, which spent $1.35 million on lobbying last year, said that killing the bill was its top legislative priority.

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Lisa Lien-Mager, the deputy secretary for communications for the California Natural Resources Agency, told Capital & Main in an email that the Newsom administration welcomed President Biden’s pause on fossil fuel development for federal lands, but she didn’t say whether the governor would pursue similar actions for state lands.

In September, Newsom signed an order directing the California Air Resources Board to develop regulations phasing out sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars in the state by 2035. This policy change seemed to echo in Biden’s executive orders, which included a directive for federal agencies to procure zero-emission vehicles and “carbon pollution-free electricity.”

And on Jan. 28, General Motors announced it would no longer sell most gasoline and diesel-powered cars by 2035, indicating that this consumer-side solution to greenhouse gas emissions had caught on in the private sector.

But for Los Angeles-based environmental justice advocate Martha Argüello, these methods aren’t enough to ameliorate the effects of toxic oil and gas productions that are harming primarily Black and Latinx communities right now.

Argüello, who is co-chair of the STAND-L.A. Coalition and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, has lobbied the city for years to institute setbacks and was part of a successful campaign that convinced the city to create a climate emergency mobilization department. For her, Biden’s executive order appeared to take inspiration from environmental justice groups. Specifically, she pointed to the provision directing federal agencies to compile “environmental justice scorecards” for tracking and investing in highly polluted communities.

“These justice ideas are coming from the administration before we even raised them,” Argüello said. “That feels different. That is not what the state of California is doing—they’re not listening to environmental justice communities.”

She described Biden’s federal action as the “bare minimum” required to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

“We want [the Newsom administration] to stop fossil fuel permits and existing oil and gas drilling, and to put in setbacks. That’s been our demand for a long time.”

The California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) is currently in the process of gathering public comment for potential new rules regarding public health for communities living near oil and gas wells, though it has not announced any specific regulatory updates. 

This story was updated on February 3 to reflect responses from California state officials.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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