Coronavirus has states hitting pause — except when it comes to oil and gas drilling

California Governor Gavin Newsom was elected after promising to tackle global warming and transition the state to clean energy, but last year journalists revealed that his administration was approving fracking permits at double the rate of the previous administration. Newsom soon announced a moratorium on the approval of fracking permits across the state.

That pause remained in place into 2020 — until earlier this month, when the state was preoccupied with thousands of documented cases of the novel coronavirus and a statewide shutdown that Newsom ordered in response.

Amid a global pandemic, the scientific panel tasked by Newsom with reviewing all pending fracking applications approved 24 new fracking permits in Kern County, the heart of California’s oil country and a major agricultural hub. The decision left environmental advocates baffled.

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In a region plagued by the kind of air pollution that public health experts are beginning to link to COVID-19 deaths, they questioned why California regulators would greenlight new fracking permits — especially since the state agency in charge of overseeing this process, California’s Geologic Energy Management division (CalGEM), is operating under a new mission to protect public health and safety.

Ironically, just as fracking picks back up the state is also pausing efforts to develop tougher regulations to protect those who live or work near oil and natural gas wells — a part of Newsom’s broader initiative to pull back on drilling as the state works toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. While the coronavirus has seemingly put those loftier goals on hold, business as usual is resuming for the state’s fossil fuel interests.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone — outside the industry — that thinks the prescription for COVID is expanding air pollution and public health threats,” said Mad Stano, program director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), a statewide coalition. “Just like you wouldn’t throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm, you wouldn’t toss out environmental health protections in the middle of a public health crisis.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at the California Department of Public Health in February 2020. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

But California’s decision to greenlight additional fracking during the pandemic is not unique. As the nation hunkers down in the fight against COVID-19, many oil and gas operators are continuing their work — despite not only nationwide social distancing measures, but also a global price crash that has the industry reeling.

Shutting down fracking, drilling, and any number of ancillary activities that support the industry could have unforeseen effects on electricity production, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and the supply chains critical for getting food to kitchen tables during the pandemic. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security and state governors have labelled the oil and gas industry an “essential” and “life-sustaining” business, exempting it from many of the restrictions placed on other businesses.

State regulatory agencies are likewise continuing to process applications to ensure that these businesses receive permits, licenses, and other authorizations they require to operate. Grist surveyed six agencies representing Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington state, and New York to assess whether they’ve made changes to accommodate the fossil fuel industry’s permitting needs during the pandemic.

All six state agencies reported that applications for permits, renewals, and other authorizations are being processed at a relatively normal pace. (In some cases, they reported having to ease normal requirements for wet signatures and physical documents in order to accommodate businesses trying to implement social distancing protocols at their workplaces.)

But these measures to aid the industry are being implemented while the enforcement and compliance divisions within these agencies have scaled back routine inspections in an attempt to protect their employees from COVID-19. Additionally, in states like Pennsylvania and Montana pipeline and refinery construction are ongoing. Some agencies have canceled public hearings where stakeholders might oppose these kinds of projects or participate in environmental rule-making. Many state agencies have also suspended the processing of public information requests, further limiting the public’s ability to gather information about projects being considered in a time of crisis.

Allowing permitting and construction to continue while curtailing substantive public participation is “especially frustrating,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit founded by former EPA employees. “[They’re saying,] ‘You can’t have public meetings, but we’ll keep rolling permits out.’”