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California loses bid to throw out lawsuit over drilling permits issued without environmental review

An environmental group can now seek evidence from and depose California officials responsible for approving thousands of oil and gas drilling permits.

(CN) — The California Geological Energy Management Division must face a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity accusing the agency of routinely issuing oil and gas drilling permits in Kern County without environmental review.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evilio Grillo denied judgment on the pleadings requests by CalGEM and three oil industry groups. Without ruling on the merits of the claims, Grillo found the conservationists can challenge what they call the pattern and practice of the agency and that their claims weren't mooted by a related lawsuit against Kern County.

CalGEM argues its approval of the permits as the "responsible agency" is only ministerial, that is it doesn't involve judgment and deliberation and is not subject to the California Environmental Quality Act. Kern County, as the "lead agency" would be responsible for whether an environmental impact report is needed for new well permits, according to CalGEM and the industry groups. A separate lawsuit challenges Kern County's Supplemental Recirculated Environmental Impact Report for permitting new wells.

"The case is not moot to extent it presents the legal questions of (1) can a responsible agency rely entirely on an EIR or other determination of a lead agency and (2) if not, what is a responsible agency’s required level of independent investigation or evaluation," Grillo wrote.

In an emailed statement, CalGEM said its policy "is to comply with every aspect of the California Environmental Quality Act in all discretionary decisions. CalGEM has a well-trained team of staff members dedicated to CEQA reviews and compliance for oil and gas permitting. CalGEM is proud of this group's work to protect Californians and mitigate environmental impacts from the development of oil, gas, and geothermal resources."

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the state this past February, claiming the oil and gas regulator continues to approve thousands of oil and gas drilling permits notwithstanding Governor Gavin Newsom's restrictions two years earlier, suspending all new fracking permits and requiring applications for oil and gas extraction to be reviewed by independent experts.

The environmental group claims CalGEM issues permits and approvals for oil and gas drilling, as well as fracking, without properly disclosing, analyzing, or mitigating the environmental impacts of these projects. CalGEM approved nearly 2,000 permits for new oil and gas wells in 2020 and 83 for fracking projects, according to the group.

The judge's decision will allow the center to demand evidence from the state agency and question the responsible individuals under oath to prepare its case for trial.

“The court saw right through these ridiculous delay tactics,” Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the center’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement Thursday. “It’s time for Gov. Newsom and his regulators to face the music for greenlighting oil industry pollution. Rubberstamping thousands of oil and gas permits is illegal and dangerous to communities and the environment, and it needs to stop.”

Follow @edpettersson
Categories / Business, Environment, Government, Regional

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