California considers ban on oil, gas operations near homes, schools, hospitals

Living near oil and gas drilling operations appears to be linked to preterm births, birth defects and respiratory ailments, numerous studies have found.

Now, California is considering a ban on such facilities near homes, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. New oil wells or drilling operations would have to be located at least 3,200 feet away from those “sensitive locations,” under rules now being considered. Existing facilities within that buffer zone would be required to enact a series of pollution controls or move.

More than 2 million Californians live within a half-mile of oil drilling sites, according to the governor’s office. In the U.S., 17.6 million Americans live within a mile of at least one active oil or gas drilling site.

The proposed 3,200-foot setback was recommended by a 15-member panel of public health experts who concluded that close proximity to oil facilities can lead to “higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and heart disease, among other health impacts.”

“Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. 

The potential exposures related to drilling are numerous: air pollution, flaring, increased traffic, water contamination, noise pollution and light pollution.

New research by Stanford University found that living near oil and gas development in California is a risk factor for preterm birth, the leading cause of infant death in the United States.

Researchers examined 225,000 births from mothers who lived within about six miles of oil and gas wells in the San Joaquin Valley in California from 1998 to 2011. The results found that women who lived near wells in the first and second trimesters were 8% to 14% more likely to experience a spontaneous preterm birth – at 20 to 31 weeks. Spontaneous preterm birth is when a pregnancy ends before 37 weeks of gestation.

“California is considering regulating how close to sensitive sites like schools these wells should be allowed to operate. I think this paper is strong evidence that we need to think carefully about that decision,” said a co-author of the Stanford study, Marshall Burke, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford Earth.

A new study from Oregon State University found that infants born within nearly 2 miles of oil and natural gas drilling facilities in Texas had slightly lower birthweights than those born before drilling began in their vicinity. Low birth weight babies are at increased risk of early death, infections and learning disabilities.

Living within about 2 miles of an active drilling site was associated with a birthweight that was 7 to 9 grams lower than those born before drilling began, the Oregon State Study found. It examined birthweight and location data for 2.6 million mother-infant pairs in Texas between 1996 and 2009 in which the mother was pregnant while living within about 6 miles of a current or future oil or gas drilling site.

Birth defects are also linked to oil and gas sites. A 2019 study from the Colorado School of Public Health found that mothers living near intense oil and gas activity have a 40% to 70% higher chance of giving birth to children with congenital heart defects.

“It does provide more evidence that there may be something about oil and gas development or some emission associated with oil and gas development that is putting children at higher risk,” Lisa McKenzie,  assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and the study’s senior author, told the Texas Standard.

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