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Ninth Circuit says offshore fracking permits require full environmental review

The decision puts another hurdle in the paths of oil companies that want to use fracking to prolong the lives of their offshore platforms.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Bureau of Oceanic Energy Management must prepare a full environmental impact statement on the effects of offshore fracking before it can issue permits for oil and gas companies to engage in this practice at platforms along the California coast.

The appellate court on Friday overturned a federal judge's earlier decision that the agency and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, who together oversee offshore drilling operations, had done enough by conducting a so-called environmental assessment, rather than preparing a more thorough environmental impact statement, to conclude that well-stimulation treatments such as fracking caused no significant environmental impact.

"The environmental impacts of extensive offshore fracking were largely unexplored," U.S. Circuit Judge Ronald Gould said in the decision. "The important issues here warranted a full National Environmental Policy Act analysis in an EIS: offshore well stimulation treatments may adversely effect endangered or threatened species; well stimulation treatments in the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf would affect unique geographic areas; and the effects of offshore well stimulation treatments are highly uncertain and involve unknown risks."

Fracking, or more fully hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into a well at an extremely high pressure to fracture the rock formation. It's one of the methods oil and gas companies use to prolong drilling at wells with dwindling reservoirs to access reserves that otherwise would be out of reach. Offshore drilling is a fiercely contested issue in California since a catastrophic oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. That blowout spurred the modern environmental movement and dozens of coastal cities have enacted stringent zoning restrictions on oil and gas facilities.

Fracking poses a variety of risks, according to the Ninth Circuit's ruling, because the chemicals used include carcinogens, mutagens, toxins and endocrine disruptors, which can harm aquatic animals and other wildlife in nearby areas, and the high pressures used an increase the risk of oil spills, in particular because it's applied to often old wells.

“Today’s decision is a win for our communities, our environment, and the rule of law,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. “Offshore drilling — particularly fracking — pollutes our waterways, damages our environment, and exacerbates climate change. We saw the risks of offshore drilling first hand with the Huntington Beach oil spill last year, and we see it every day in the form of the climate crisis."

Representatives of the Bureau of Oceanic Energy Management didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the court's decision.

The litigation dates back to 2012 when environmental groups discovered through Freedom of Information Act requests that the federal agencies had been issuing offshore fracking permits without doing a required environmental review. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement agreed to conduct an environmental review as part of a settlement of that initial lawsuit.

However, when the agencies only went through an environmental assessment that saw no issue with fracking at the offshore platforms, new lawsuits followed, resulting in the Ninth Circuit's present decision.

The judge overseeing the litigation, which involved numerous claims by California as well, had already agreed with the environmentalist that the agencies couldn't issue fracking permits without first consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the impact on endangered species. The judge also agreed with the state that the federal agencies needed to review whether issuing fracking permits was consistent with California’s coastal management program.

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