California Faulted for Ignoring Water|During Oil-Drilling Frenzy

     SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — An environmental group says California regulators are too lax in protecting the state’s precious groundwater amid an historic drought and shouldn’t allow new oil and gas wells in San Luis Obispo County.
     The Center for Biological Diversity sued two California departments in charge of regulating the oil and gas industry on Wednesday, saying the proposed exemption to allow Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas to drill new wells in San Luis Obispo County was done without proper environmental analysis.
     The California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, after consultation with the California State Water Resources Control Board, approved an exemption for the aquifer under the Arroyo Grande Oil Field and then submitted it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval.
     “The department did not conduct environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act prior to determining that the aquifer could be polluted by oil and gas wastewater and other fluids, and submitting the aquifer exemption to EPA for final approval,” the center says in the complaint.
     The Arroyo Grande Oil Field, located in Price Canyon about halfway between Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, currently contains about 400 wells. Freeport wants permission to add up to as many 450 new wells which will use water-injection methods to extract oil, the center says in its complaint.
     The two regulatory agencies did not abide by CEQA before submitting the exemption application to the EPA, according to the center, which wants the court to set aside the agency’s approval and halt Freeport’s operations at the site.
     The aquifer in question is situated under a semi-rural area of rolling hills, vineyards, residents who value the area’s natural beauty, the center says.
     “As the Arroyo Grande Oil Field has increased its use of enhanced oil recovery methods, such as high-pressure steam injection, to recover oil, and increased the number of waste water injection wells, residents have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of such oil extraction actions on their water,” the center says in the complaint.
     The suit comes as California in general, and the conservation department in particular, attempt to recover from last year’s revelations that oil companies were dumping large amounts hazardous waste into protected underground aquifers throughout the state in express violation of federal and state water-protection laws.
     “There is a series of unfolding scandals that led to the water pollution crisis,” said Kassie Siegel, the center’s Climate Law Institute Director.
     Don Drysdale, a public affairs officer with the department, said the approval of Freeport’s application is part of the plan to “bring the state into full compliance” with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
     “This effort is an important part of the department’s renewal plan to overhaul its oil and gas regulatory program and continue refocusing on the guiding principles of environmental protection and public health,” Drysdale said in an email.
     Arroyo Grande is one of three oil fields under consideration for exemptions by the department, the water control board and eventually the EPA. However, Arroyo Grande is the first to be approved by the state agencies and forwarded to the EPA, where it is still in the review process.
     Seigel said further lawsuits are possible for the other oil fields.
     The public comment period for the Round Mountain Oil Field application closed on June 25, but the period for the Fruitvale Oil Field application extends through Aug. 29.
     In terms of Arroyo Grande, the center says the conservation department and the water board had “a clear responsibility under CEQA to disclose, analyze, and mitigate or avoid the effects of this decision — and of the future development that will follow as a result of this decision — before deciding to eliminate the possibility that the Arroyo Grande Aquifer could ever be used for drinking water or other beneficial purposes in the future.”
     Instead of conducting environmental analysis at the earliest opportunity, the state did conduct an environmental review, the center says in the complaint.
     Drysdale did not comment on the specific allegations of the suit, citing department policy.
     The center is represented by in-house attorneys Maya Golden-Krasner, Anchun Jean Su and Kevin Bundy.

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