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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Frackers in California Get Free Passes, Environmentalists Say

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - California is illegally handing out permits to use fracking in oil and gas drilling, without environmental surveys required by law, four environmental groups claim in court.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, Environmental Working Group, and the Sierra Club sued the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) in Alameda County Court.

"The point of this lawsuit is to protect the public health and the environment and enforce the public's right to know," the plaintiffs' lead counsel George Torgun, with Earth Justice, told Courthouse News in an interview.

The Department of Conservation's spokesman Ed Wilson said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

"At this time no one has served us with a lawsuit, but if they do we will review it and respond as necessary," Wilson wrote in an email to Courthouse News.

The DOGGR regulates onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling in California. It also is the lead agency under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for approving and issuing permits for new oil and gas wells.

The environmentalists say DOGGR violates CEQA by "approving permits for oil and gas wells after exempting such projects from environmental review or otherwise issuing boilerplate negative declarations finding no significant impacts from these activities."

They plaintiffs also claim that none of the permits at issue mention that the wells may use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

California is the fourth-largest oil producing state in the nation, behind Texas, North Dakota and Alaska. Its 51,394 oil wells and 1,567 gas wells produced "approximately 200 million barrels of oil and 255 billion cubic feet of natural gas" in 2010, according to the complaint.

The Western States Petroleum Association reported that 628 of California's wells were fracked in 2011. But the environmentalists say it is impossible to know the true number of wells that are being fracked because DOGGR does not require well owners to report on fracking.

Torgun said there is no way to know how many wells were issued permits without doing the environmental reviews required by CEQA.

"DOGGR completely exempted at least half the wells we've looked at over the past two years from environmental review," Torgun said.

"We've looked at stuff from 2011 and asked them directly if they had prepared a more detailed environmental report, but they said they hadn't."

DOGGR's failure to require environmental impact studies is "particularly troubling" given the damage fracking can inflict on the environment, the groups say.

"Fracking is the high-pressure injection of a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into an oil or gas reservoir to fracture the reservoir rock and allow for the recovery of additional reserves," the complaint states. "There are several significant environmental and public health impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing, including the contamination of domestic and agricultural water supplies, the use of massive amounts of water, the emission of hazardous air pollutants, and the potential for induced seismic activity.

"Yet the environmental review of oil and gas activities conducted by DOGGR for CEQA purposes does not even mention, let alone analyze or mitigate, the potential impacts from fracking. In fact, DOGGR regularly permits new oil and gas wells without any environmental analysis at all by categorically excluding such projects from CEQA based on regulatory exemptions for 'minor alterations to land' or 'existing facilities' that are wholly inapplicable to such activities."


California apparently has not yet suffered any environmental damage from fracking, Torgun said.

"But we have seen impacts around the country," he said. "The injection of chemicals known to cause cancer into the ground has caused groundwater contamination, and in some instances fracking has even caused earthquakes."

Fracking has many other environmental impacts, including using large volumes of water that cannot be reused, and releasing hazardous air pollutants that can cause "respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis, heart attacks, and even premature death," the complaint states.

The impact of fracking on the water supply is important to California, Torgun said.

"Water is a pretty limited resource here, and fracking can use hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. With the water shortage going on, that's definitely a major issue to consider," he said.

Wilson, the DOGGR spokesman, took a more optimistic view about fracking.

"California has for decades regulated the construction and integrity of all wells drilled in the state with mechanical and physical standards to protect both water-bearing and oil- or gas-bearing underground resources," Wilson wrote.

"The mechanical integrity of wells in California should serve to confine hydraulic fracturing to an underground area safe for the practice."

Torgun was skeptical.

"The techniques involved in fracking have really advanced over the last decade, so it's difficult to tell if the existing standards are effective," he said.

"A lot more information is needed about the new techniques" to determine if standards provide adequate protection against dangers associated with fracking, Torgun said.

The environmental groups say that exempting oil and gas wells from CEQA's environmental review process and not mentioning fracking on the permits deprives the public of its right to know about projects' potential impacts, and how they will be mitigated.

They claim the "legally inadequate" information on the permits makes it impossible to know "where or when hydraulic fracturing will occur."

Torgun said one goal of the lawsuit is to ensure that the pubic is aware of fracking's potential impacts.

"Up through last year, the Department did not even admit that they were issuing permits without ever having done extensive environmental review, or mentioning fracking at all," he said. "Only with pressure from the public did it admit that fracking is going on in California."

Wilson acknowledged that the Department of Conservation does not regulate fracking, but said regulations are being developed.

"The department is a matter of weeks from having a preliminary draft of hydraulic fracturing regulations," Wilson wrote.

"These won't kick off the formal public review, but will be a starting point of discussion by key stakeholders - industry, the environmental community, and other regulators - as we prepare for the formal rule-making."

The environmentalists say that DOGGR's actions "expose plaintiffs and the public in general to environmental degradation of the public resources of this state due to its failure to evaluate, understand, and mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development, including the impacts of hydraulic fracturing."

They seek declaratory judgment that the defendant violated CEQA by issuing permits without requiring environmental analysis, and want it enjoined from issuing any more permits until it analyzes the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

"We want to get ahead of the problem before it explodes in California like it has in other parts of the country," Torgun said.

"California prides itself on being a leader in environmental protection, but right now it's falling behind on this issue by not acknowledging the dangers associated with fracking."

In Pennsylvania, a doctor sued that state for enacting a law that prohibited him, and others, from speaking about health effects of fracking. At the behest of the oil and gas industry, the Pennsylvania Legislature declared that chemicals injected in fracking were a trade secret, and so could not be discussed in public.

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