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Supreme Court snubs review of fracking pause in Southern California

The pause on fracking in California is the result of a federal injunction secured by environmental groups fighting the controversial drilling technique. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — An oil industry challenge to the prohibition on offshore fracking in the federal waters off of California was thwarted Monday by the Supreme Court. 

Without explanation or any dissents, the justices declined the opportunity to review an appeals court ruling that had paused fracking in certain areas of the Pacific Ocean. 

Environmental groups praised Monday’s development, lauding it as a win for the Golden State’s ecosystem. 

“California’s amazing coast and vulnerable marine life deserve this victory, which will protect the ecosystem from the many dangers of offshore fracking,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The fracking ban will help prevent more toxic chemicals from poisoning fish, sea otters and other marine life. But our ocean won’t be truly protected until offshore drilling stops once and for all. We hope this is the beginning of the end of drilling off California’s coast.”

Fracking works by injecting liquids into the bedrock at high pressures, causing cracks that make it easier to access natural gas and petroleum. Controversially, however, the process also emits pollutants into the air and can increase the risk of oil spills. The process also uses liquids that contain toxins or other carcinogens that risk harming marine life.  

An oil spill off the California coast led to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law that requires agencies to prepare environmental impact statements for actions that are expected to affect the environment. 

In 2013, environmental groups found out the Department of the Interior was skirting that law when they filed public records requests for oil rigs on the California coast. The government had authorized fracking without evaluating the environmental impacts. This lapse led to a suit from the Environmental Defense Center. 

The government settled the suit, agreeing to a review what impacts the fracking operations could generate and to set a moratorium on fracking until the review was complete. 

When the department released its assessment in 2016, it suggested the use of some fracking operations would not cause significant impacts. Environmental groups challenged the assessment, claiming the fracking approval would violate the Endangered Species Act. California also filed a suit alleging the assessment violated the Coastal Zone Management Act. 

The American Petroleum Institute intervened to defend the assessment. Oil companies argued the action was not final under the Administrative Procedure Act. Ultimately a federal judge ruled in favor of California and the environmental groups, and the Ninth Circuit unanimously affirmed — a decision that prohibited further permit approval for fracking. 

On behalf of the industry, the American Petroleum Institute then turned to the Supreme Court, defending fracking as a process has allowed the U.S. to become a leader in oil production. It claims the ban would force the courts to review premature challenges to agency actions and pause vital energy projects. 

“The Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction against all new permits for well-stimulation treatments on the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf — a region that has produced more than 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and was recently estimated to have approximately 10 billion barrels of untapped oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of untapped natural gas,” Paul Weiss attorney Kannon Shanmugam wrote in an opposition brief. “If allowed to stand, the decision below will undermine the development of oil, natural gas, and renewable energy on the entire Outer Continental Shelf.”

Since the appeals courts are not split on the issues presented in the case, the environmental groups argued the challenge was not worth the justices’ review. The groups also say the oil industry’s claims of increased litigation are “fanciful.” They also note that the appeals court’s ruling is narrow and does not have the outsized impact characterized by the companies. 

The Environmental Defense Center said the justices made the right decision in declining to review the case. 

“The Supreme Court was right to reject the oil industry’s latest attempt to allow fracking and acidizing in our waters with zero meaningful environmental review,” Maggie Hall, senior attorney at EDC, said in a statement. “The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most ecologically rich and important regions in the world. As the climate crisis escalates, ending these destructive extraction practices is a matter of survival — not just for the whales, otters and other animals in the Channel, but for all life on earth.”

The American Petroleum Institute declined to comment on the order. 

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Categories / Appeals, Business, Energy, Environment, Government

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