3yr investigation shows CA responds to oil & gas pollution complaints, but public isn’t protected

Nov 12 — A three-year investigation released today — Loud and Clear: what public regulatory complaints reveal about California’s oversight of oil and gas pollution and whom it serves — shows that while California leads among six states examined when it comes to responding to public complaints about oil and gas pollution, it doesn’t adequately protect impacted residents.

Since 2017, Earthworks made 174 site visits to 132 oil and gas wells, compressor stations, and processing plants — and filed 63 regulatory complaints: 21 with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (APCD), 25 complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), 5 complaints with the Santa Barbara APCD, 4 complaints with the Ventura County APCD, and 8 complaints in areas covered by several other air districts. The complaints were supported by optical gas imaging (OGI) video of otherwise invisible air pollution — methane and toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene. These site inspection results demonstrate that California oil and gas oversight does not prevent pollution that operators shouldn’t be releasing.

“Our site inspections revealed that many oil and gas operations release air pollution that they shouldn’t. But California’s regulatory oversight is too understaffed and underfunded to prevent it,” said report lead author Nadia Steinzor, Earthworks’ Community Empowerment Project Manager.

Thirty eight (60%) of complaints resulted in actions by district regulators to reduce pollution. Nineteen (30%) led to a response by regulators in the form of an operator contact or inspection, but did not result in the issuance of any violations. Regulators didn’t take any action in response to 4 complaints (6%), and the remaining 2 complaints are indeterminate or pending.

California’s 60% pollution reduction action rate compares favorably to 5 other oil and gas producing states Earthworks also investigated over the past 3 years — CO: 14%, NM: 8%, PA:  21%, OH: 29%. California also compares favorably to those states in terms of complaint response time: days vs weeks or even months.

However, as in all the other states, Loud and Clear also revealed that California data regarding individual public complaint responses are difficult to get, and public response systems aren’t standard across jurisdictions. For impacted residents (as opposed to staffed environmental groups like Earthworks), it is hard to know if regulators acted to protect them.

“When regulators don’t prevent pollution, they put a burden on impacted residents to try to protect themselves by complaining to regulators about the consequent pollution they’re forced to live with. For years regulators and policymakers have needed to do more to protect Californians’ health and climate from the oil and gas industry. California’s track record suggests that the only way to reliably protect impacted residents and the climate is to stop permitting oil and gas operations,” said Steinzor.