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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Greens Say State Bends Over for Frackers

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - California illegally hands out oil- and gas-drilling leases without "tracking, monitoring, or otherwise supervising the high-risk, unconventional injection practice" of fracking, the Center for Biological Diversity claims in court.

The environmental group sued the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) in Alameda County Court.

DOGGR regulates onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling in California. It is also tasked with monitoring oil and gas wells to "prevent damage to life, health, property, and natural resources or damage to underground and surface waters ... by the infiltration of, or the addition of, detrimental substances," according to the complaint states.

But the Center for Biological Diversity claims DOGGR is shirking its duties by letter oil and gas drillers use hydraulic fracturing with no monitoring at all, in violation of the agency's own Underground Injection Control program.

"In fact, DOGGR has admitted that it does not know where or how often hydraulic fracturing occurs in California, how much water is required, or what chemicals are injected underground in fracking fluids, and has admitted that it does not have any information regarding the safety, efficacy, or necessity of the practice," the complaint states.

California is the fourth-largest producer of oil in the country, behind Texas, North Dakota and Alaska. Its 51,394 oil wells and 1,567 gas wells produced "approximately 200 million barrels of oil and 225 billion cubic feet of gas" in 2010, according to the complaint.

Another 2,300 new wells were drilled in 2011, the complaint states.

The Western States Petroleum Association reported that 628 of the state's oil and gas wells were fracked in 2011. But the Center for Biological Diversity says there is no way to know how many wells in the state are being fracked because DOGGR does not require well operators to say when they use fracking.

It claims that DOGGR's failure to monitor fracking is worrisome given the "significant environmental and human health hazards" associated with it.

Fracking has set off lawsuits and legislative battles all over the country. It has been prohibited in some enormous watersheds by cities and water districts that fear contamination of drinking water, and oil companies have gone to court to fight cities' and water districts' power to prohibit it.

A supine Legislature in Pennsylvania made it illegal in that state to state publicly what chemicals are injected into the soil in fracking, claiming it was a "trade secret." A physician took Pennsylvania to court for that, on constitutional grounds, claiming there is no secret at all to the process, but that the state was trying to muzzle him from talking about patients who have been hurt by contaminated water.

The Center for Biological Diversity says in its complaint: "Hydraulic fracturing is the injection into newly drilled or existing wells of water, toxic chemicals, and sand or other materials that hold fissures open ('proppants') at pressures high enough to break and fracture tight shale formations, allowing the oil or gas within them to flow into the wells. Recent technical developments and improvements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have made these activities economical, and oil and gas production from fracking has spiked dramatically in the United States in the last few years."

The environmental group claims that the economic advantages of fracking are not worth the risks it poses to people and the environment.


Fracking can contaminate agricultural and drinking water supplies, release hazardous pollutants such as methane into the air, and has the "potential to induce seismic activity, a unique concern in California, one of the nation's most seismically active states," according to the complaint.

A 2011 study revealed that the water used in fracking in several states had 632 chemicals added to it. Many of the chemicals are toxic and known to cause serious health problems, damaging the brain, eyes, and nervous system and causing cancer, according to the complaint.

The environmental group also claims fracking hurts California's water supply by requiring "tens of thousands to millions of gallons of water per well," which cannot be reused for drinking or agricultural purposes.

"Despite these dangers, DOGGR follows a pattern and practice of failing to track, monitor, or regulate hydraulic fracturing, [or] to apply the UIC [Underground Injection Control] program to hydraulic fracturing," the complaint states.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the UIC program requires DOGGR to collect extensive data about every potential injection site before it can issue a drilling permit. Among other things, the DOGGR must "obtain detailed engineering and geological studies," conduct chemical and pressure analyses of the injection fluid, and "supervise testing, operation, monitoring, modification and plugging and abandonment" of the oil or gas well.

Under the Drinking Water Act, DOGGR must protect California's drinking water from contamination by "Class II underground injection wells ... which inject fluids for the enhanced recovery of oil or gas," according to the complaint.

Even though federal courts found in 2005 that fracking qualifies as an "underground injection" under the Drinking Water Act, the plaintiff claims that DOGGR refuses to change its own definition of "injection," so it can exclude fracking from the UIC program.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found in 2011 that the UIC program "does not adequately protect potential underground sources of drinking water" from exposure to injection fluids, and ordered DOGGR to prepare an action plan to correct these problems, according to the complaint.

More than a year later, in November 2012, DOGGR stated that it had improved the UIC program but still needed to modify it to bring it into compliance with "state laws and regulations," the complaint states.

Two months after that, DOGGR released a "discussion draft" proposing regulations to fracking. But even though the draft report defined fracking as "the pressurized injection of hydraulic fracturing fluid" into the ground to increase oil or gas production, DOGGR claims that fracking does not qualify as "underground injection" and exempted it from the UIC program, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff says that's simply illegal.

Unless the court forces DOGGR to monitor fracking, DOGGR's "actions expose plaintiff and the public in general to increased risk of, and actual, environmental harm and degradation of the public resources of the state," according to the complaint.

The group seeks declaratory judgment that DOGGR violates the California Code of Regulations by not including fracking in the UIC program, and wants it enjoined from issuing any more permits to wells that could use fracking until it is subject to UIC regulations.

The Center for Biological Diversity is represented by house counsel Vera P. Pardee, of its San Francisco office.

Calls seeking comment were not immediately returned.

The Center for Biological Diversity and three other environmental groups filed a similar complaint against DOGGR in October 2012, claiming the agency violated the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing permits for oil and gas drilling without requiring environmental analysis of fracking.

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