California Sues Feds to Stop Offshore Fracking

LOS ANGELES (CN) – In a move that may foreshadow California’s resistance to the Trump administration, the state sued the federal government over claims it inappropriately ruled that hydraulic fracking off California’s coast is permissible.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the California Coastal Commission sued the United States Department of Interior in federal court on Monday, calling into question the department’s recent conclusion that the use of hydraulic fracking in California’s coastal waters would have no impact on the environment.

“The U.S. Department of Interior’s inadequate environmental assessment would open the door to practices like fracking that may pose a threat to the health and well-being of California communities,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “We must balance our energy needs with our longstanding commitment to protecting our natural resources and public health.”

Harris and commission officials accused the government of a lack of due diligence in assessing the controversial method of fossil-fuel extraction, saying it took a pair of earlier lawsuits to even raise the issue in the first place.

Freedom of Information Act requests filed in 2013 revealed the Interior Department had approved fracking and other controversial methods of extraction on several offshore oil platforms in the Pacific Ocean off of California, according to the complaint.

“The modern environmental movement began here in California in 1969, when a devastating oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara killed countless sea birds and marine animals,” said Coastal Commission Chair Dayna Bochco. “Our coast is a treasure that we must preserve and protect for future generations and we must not take unnecessary risks with it.”

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is a controversial practice in which extractors inject a mixture of water, sand and a chemical cocktail into certain sedimentary layers at extremely high pressures to artificially create fissures through which oil and gas can flow.

The federal government has come under increasing pressure from outside groups that claim it paints too rosy of a picture of fracking’s impact on the environment. In August, a panel of scientists determined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fell short of properly characterizing the potential environmental hazards associated with the practice.

Four days ago, the EPA backtracked on its initial report that said instances of fracking compromising water quality and instead asserted that a certain array of factors makes it “more likely than others to result in more frequent or more severe impacts.”

The use of fracking in the oil and gas industry has increased exponentially in recent years, according to the complaint, going from 23,000 wells that produced about 100,000 barrels a day – 2 percent of the national output – to more than 300,000 such wells producing about 4.3 million barrels per day – half the nation’s production – in 2015.

California argues that the Interior Department and other federal agencies failed to take the required “hard look” at offshore fracking’s environmental impacts. Instead, the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by relying on “unfounded assumptions,” according to the complaint.

The region affected by the department’s decision includes the Santa Barbara Channel, the Santa Maria Basin off the coast of Santa Barbara County, and offshore from Long Beach, near the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the complaint.

In 1969, approximately 100,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the coast of Santa Barbara, marking the first major oil spill in coastal waters in the United States. To date, it remains the third largest oil spill, behind the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 – the largest spill ever to afflict the United States.

Santa Barbara also suffered another spill last year — the Refugio Oil Spill —  although it was comparatively moderate, with about 3,400 barrels of oil spilling into the coastal waters.

California seeks a determination that the federal government acted arbitrarily and contrary to itsown rules when it approved offshore fracking. The state asks that the approval be set aside and that the government be barred from approving offshore fracking.

The lawsuit comes about a week after California Gov. Jerry Brown wrote President Barack Obama, urging him to ban all offshore oil and gas drilling in the coastal waters of California.

“California is blessed with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline; home to scenic state parks, beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife and thriving communities,” Brown wrote in the letter to Obama. “Clearly, large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.”

In an email, the Department of Interior said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The suit also names the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Management, and their respective directors Richard Yarde and David Fishe.

In November, Harris was elected to a U.S. Senate seat and will succeed Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring.