Monday, October 2, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California, Big Oil sued over new gas and well permits

The California Geologic Energy Management Division faces new complaints it illegitimately approved oil wells in Southern California and the Central Coast.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A coalition of environmentalists has launched legal claims against Big Oil, claiming new gas wells in Southern California are too close to homes, beaches and vulnerable ecosystems. 

The Center for Biological Diversity and other groups sued California oil regulators in Alameda County Superior Court over the approval of about two dozen new oil and gas wells in Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo counties, saying the state did not conduct the required environmental review.

The California Geologic Energy Management Division approved 15 new oil and gas wells in the Wilmington oilfield in Long Beach, to be located on an artificial island less than 1,000 feet from a public beach. But the coalition says that an oil slick at the same location washed up on beaches last year, and the wells are within 3,200 feet of homes and community gathering sites. 

Regulators relied on an expired 50-year-old study that doesn’t evaluate climate change or the risks to human health in approving the wells, the coalition says. 

“Rubberstamping new oil drilling sites without proper environmental review continues environmentally racist policies that add to the health harms residents have been facing for years,” said Jan Victor Andasan, a community organizer with East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice. 

“Frontline communities are already overburdened with a multitude of pollution sources in neighborhoods like West Long Beach, from oil production sites to goods-movement operations. People in many working-class Black and Brown communities are simply trying to breathe, and to do that they need agencies to practice thorough, thoughtful review.”

The coalition also opposes six new wells approved to be placed in Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County, close to homes and within important habitat for several imperiled species including the California coast horned lizard and the rare wildflower Pismo clarkia. The coalition says regulators relied on a 19-year-old environmental study that evaluated the harms of a 125-well project. 

“With increased wildfires, sea-level rise and drought, the Central Coast is on the front line of the climate crisis,” said Heidi Harmon, former San Luis Obispo mayor. “When the state rubberstamps new oil drilling, the consequences are steep for our community’s water, our property values, and our children's future.”

The coalition claims approvals of the new oil and gas wells cannot comply with CEQA because the energy management agency failed to assume a lead role when confronted with new information and changed circumstances regarding the wells. That includes information that the number of wells covered by environmental review documents prepared in the 1990s has already been exceeded, while the agency now has an expanded regulation authority and the areas surrounding the oilfields have changed. 

The agency has recently been under scrutiny for oil and gas approvals, having dramatically increased approvals of “rework” oil and gas permits — some within the health-and-safety buffer zone Newsom signed into law. That law is also now on hold, pending an oil industry-backed referendum. And Newsom has not yet appointed a replacement for the agency’s supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk, who resigned in 2022 after reports of increased Big Oil permit approvals. 

The coalition also sued the agency in 2021 claiming it failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act to analyze and mitigate environmental harms on thousands of oil and gas drilling and fracking projects. The court denied motions for judgment from the state and intervenors in December 2021, and the case is currently in the discovery phase.

“State regulators are neglecting their duty to protect the public from these dangerous oil and gas projects,” said Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute

“Putting new wells near homes, beaches, and dwindling habitat for wildlife is the exact opposite of public safety. It’s not only outrageous but illegal for CalGEM to approve these wells without a scrap of new environmental review.”

The plaintiffs seek a petition for writ of mandate against the agency, Sentinel Peak Resources California, LLC. and Thums Long Beach Company. They want a judge to declare the state agency violated CEQA by approving permits for both sets of wells and to set aside the approvals and prevent drilling of the wells until the state complies with its obligations under the law and the state public resources code.

The plaintiffs also say California's attorneys have notified them that the challenged permits have been rescinded or canceled.

Thums Long Beach Company did not respond to requests for comment before press time. The Geologic Energy Management Division’s automated response requested more time to comment. 

"CBD’s lawsuit is not only meritless, but also a prime example of CEQA abuse," said Sentinel Peak lawyer Daniel Taimuty -- calling the claims "baseless and frivolous."

"The wells at issue in this lawsuit were fully evaluated under CEQA by the county of San Luis Obispo acting as lead agency consistent with the requirements of CEQA promulgated under the country’s most stringent environmental requirements. CBD has mischaracterized the CEQA review that accompanied approval of these wells and omitted key facts that undermine their claims."

Follow @@nhanson_reports
Categories / Courts, Environment, Health

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.