Federal Judge Mulls California Offshore Fracking Injunction

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A full review of the environmental impact of oil drilling operations off the coast of Southern California is likely to be ordered after a federal judge said Friday he was considering ordering a pause on new drilling permits.

The Environmental Defense Center and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, based in the California central coast, filed a 72-page complaint in November 2016 challenging the federal government’s failure to fully review the impacts of hydraulic fracking on marine life and its failure to invite public comment.

Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the government’s lifting of a moratorium on offshore drilling that involved “well stimulation treatments” such as acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing.

The government glossed over the potential significant impacts of fracking and performed only a cursory environmental review, violating their responsibility under the National Environmental Policy Act, the complaint said.

In response to the lawsuit, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Department of the Interior, named defendants in the case, agreed to conduct an environmental review but argued in court papers that their approval of drilling permits didn’t violate the act since it did not constitute “final agency action.”

In February, plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment that defendants are required to produce an Environmental Impact Statement “whenever an action may affect the environment.”

At a hearing Monday on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment, U.S District Judge Philip Gutierrez asked attorneys for both parties for input on potential judicial remedies in the case.

“If I issue an injunction, what does the remedy look like and how does that affect the case,” Gutierrez said, openly pondering how a court ordered environmental review might impact litigation.

Linda Krop, an Environmental Defense Center attorney, told Gutierrez the ideal remedy would be an injunction barring the government’s permitting of offshore drilling until a full review is completed.

Poe Leggette of the firm Baker Hostetler, an attorney representing intervenor defendant DCOR, an oil and gas company, said a full environmental review may not be feasible since water toxicity test results were not available.

Jonathan Hunter of the firm Jones Walker, an attorney for intervenor defendant Exxon Mobil, added that the Ninth Circuit supported “strong deference” to the agencies on environmental reviews.

Gutierrez did not indicate when he would rule and has not produced a tentative ruling.

Conservationists have said fracking presents an increased risk of oil spills and seismic activity since it purposely fractures ocean bedrock and injects fluid into seismically active areas.

Offshore drilling can result in greenhouse gas emissions and discharges of toxic chemicals which can severely impact the quality of air and water that marine life and coastal communities depend on for survival, the complaint said.

In a statement Monday, Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the case was “crucial” to protecting California’s coast from oil spills.

“As the Trump administration tries to expand offshore drilling in the Pacific, we can’t keep letting the oil industry dump its waste in our waters,” Monsell said. “It’s really disturbing that federal officials continue to ignore the danger offshore fracking poses to whales, sea otters and people.”

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