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State oil regulators sued for approving new oil well drilling projects in Southern California

California approved new oil drilling projects without following legal standards to assess impacts on nearby homes and schools, environmental advocates say.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — California oil regulators face litigation for approving new oil and gas wells in Los Angeles and Kern counties, allegedly without conducting analyses to protect public health and the environment. 

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, Thursday for approving more than a dozen new oil and gas wells — some to be located near homes and schools. The litigation filed in Alameda County Superior Court comes months after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a landmark climate package into law to place a 3,200-foot buffer between oil and gas sites and homes and schools.

In a 29-page complaint, plaintiffs say that new oil and gas wells will be drilled in Santa Clarita near residences, Golden Valley High School and Placerita Canyon State Park. In Kern County, which has some of the worst air quality in the nation, eight wells will be drilled in the Elk Hills oilfield.

“When permitting oil and gas wells, CalGEM has a nondiscretionary duty to comply with CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), a comprehensive statute designed to provide for long-term protection of the environment,” the plaintiffs wrote in their complaint.

“The governor has taken major steps to protect Californians from oil-industry pollution, but his regulators undercut those reforms by rubber-stamping new wells near people’s homes,” said Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center’s Climate Law Institute, in a statement.

“Regulators need to examine the serious threats from these wells to people’s health, our air and water, and dwindling habitat for wildlife. It’s ridiculous for them to approve these wells and pretend there won’t be serious consequences.”

The lawsuit says the agency approving the Santa Clarita wells relied on a 1991 Santa Clarita city study that claimed oilfield expansion wouldn’t result in any significant environmental harms. The 30-year-old study doesn’t evaluate or mention nearby residential areas or climate change, the plaintiffs claim. 

“The Negative Declaration does not mention greenhouse gas emissions,” the plaintiffs wrote. “It also does not mention nearby houses or a nearby school. It does not discuss impacts specific to particular kinds of wells, such as production wells or enhanced oil recovery injection wells. It does not discuss the risks of idle wells.”

They also say applications for drilling include conflicting information about waste generation, stating “no waste will be generated,” but using safety plan attachments showing drill cuttings and mud will be stored onsite before being sampled and disposed of.

CalGEM approved the Elk Hills oilfield project, which now has more than 3,132 active wells, based on a 1997 study by the U.S. Department of Energy and Kern County. The operator California Resources Elk Hills is a subsidiary of California Resources Corporation, which CalGEM served with a notice of violation this year after a surface oil spill opened a sink hole near Elk Hills operations. A state superior court ruled last month that Kern County would be allowed to resume oil and gas permitting under a local fast-tracking ordinance.

The Center says it sent a letter in May 2020 alerting CalGEM that relying on an invalidated Kern County Environmental Impact Report when permitting new drilling activities in that county violates CEQA. The Center later notified CalGEM that it needs to analyze whether older environmental review documents encompass new drilling requests, asking the agency to consider new information "showing significant environmental harm attributable to drilling projects."

The Center says that in both cases, the approved wells already exceed the number covered in the decades-old environmental reviews, making the new well approvals invalid.

The plaintiffs say CalGEM continues to issue oil and gas permits “with no meaningful analysis,” after being sued last year for failing to comply with CEQA requirements for environmental review. CEQA requires that communities affected by project proposals have the right to get full information about a project’s harms and participate in any decision. 

“CalGEM needs to fully disclose the harms of these oil and gas projects, get community input, and quit using outdated documents,” Jones said. “It needs to comply with the law and do its duty to protect Californians.”

The oil industry has stated its intention to apply for thousands of new permits under the ordinance and its supporting environmental review. Newsom has also been sued by oil interests who say the state is illegally delaying or blocking the issuance of permits for oil and gas development involving certain extraction methods, including fracking. The plaintiffs say without the state’s intervention Kern County could see a rapid increase in oil and gas drilling without adequate study of dangerous impacts.

The plaintiffs want a writ of mandate or peremptory declaring that CalGEM has violated CEQA in approving the permits for the wells and to direct CalGEM to vacate approvals to drill and refrain from granting future approvals in the Placerita and Elk Hills oilfields until it complies with all obligations under CEQA and the California Public Resources Code. The plaintiffs also want injunctive relief, fully prohibiting CalGEM from drilling and operating new wells.

A spokesperson for CalGEM and the Department of Conservation did not respond to a request for comment. 

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