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."