The world’s — and California’s — attention is deservedly focused right now on the COVID-19 public health crisis. The health threats posed by climate change, which is the end result of extracting, refining, and burning oil and gas, remain unchanged and existential. If we continue burning fossil fuels per usual, the coming decades will raise average temperatures in California by up to 8.8 degrees Fahrenheit. That will reduce water supply from snowpack by up to two-thirds, increase the area burned by wildfire by 77%, and erode most of the beaches in the Southern part of our state. Many of these changes have dire health consequences, especially for our kids.
Amidst the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), whose stated mission is to “prioritize protecting public health, safety, and the environment in its oversight of the oil, natural gas, and geothermal industries” paradoxically issued 24 new fracking permits on April 3rd, authorizing the first new oil wells using hydraulic fracking in California since July of last year.
For CalGEM to issue any new fracking permits at all is antithetical to its mission and a direct threat to our health and future. CalGEM risks becoming the California version of the current federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is widely seen as betraying its mission to protect health.
Fracking endangers our health by increasing smog and air pollution, leading to respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic lung disease. Especially right now, lung health is of utmost importance, as we see that people with asthma and underlying health conditions are more likely to die from COVID-19. Frontline communities disproportionately bear the brunt of fossil fuel pollution-induced disease — including asthma, heart disease, and diabetes — making these communities at highest risk of complications from COVID-19. There is increasing concern that kids with asthma who live in areas with heavily polluted air have a higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 as well.
In February CalGEM hosted its first in a series of pre-rulemaking hearings to elicit community input on public health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas production operations. These meetings have understandably been postponed due to COVID-19. We hope that CalGEM will find a way to interpret the medical and technical public health information that is shared at these meetings. But our confidence in CalGEM’s ability to prioritize public health is severely undermined by its issuance of any new fracking permits, especially right now, as Californians need healthy, fighting lungs more than ever.
We doctors, nurses and public health professionals are not merely stakeholders. We are the ones caring for children as they gasp for breath while experiencing an asthma attack, who try medication after medication to alleviate migraine, who stand at the bedside when a baby is born prematurely, forcing air in and out of tiny, underdeveloped lungs. We have taken an oath to “first do no harm.” It is our duty to call out the current and future harm that new fracking wells will inflict on the health of Californians.
COVID-19 reminds us that health is all-important. We are learning, under dire circumstances, how underlying diseases — many of which are related to exposures from the life-cycle of gas and oil extraction — create particular vulnerability to the coronavirus, as they will with any future viruses. We are learning, day after day, that without our health, we have nothing.
We are doctors, nurses, medical students, and public health experts. We are front-line fighters and front-line advocates. We are exhausted. But we are resolute. CalGEM, rescind these permits. Do not issue new permits. Look at the data and the science. You cannot possibly protect public health while also allowing more fracking and other forms of oil extraction.
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped us to understand that when people heed health science early and take appropriate precautions we can stem the tide of disease. We have all learned the phrase “flatten the curve.” We need to replicate this science-based practice in relation to oil extraction. We need to stop new wells in California. Now.
This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.