Lawsuit Seeks to Force Impact Analyses Before Fracking for Oil, Gas in California

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Four environmental advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Oct. 16 to force a California state regulator to conduct environmental impact analyses for oil and gas fields before hydraulic fracturing occurs (Center for Biological Diversity v. California Department of Conservation, Cal. Super. Ct., docket number unavailable, 10/16/12).

The groups said the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), a part of the California Department of Conservation, has been violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by issuing permits for oil and gas drilling without analyses of the risks posed by fracturing, or fracking.

“In particular, DOGGR's practice of 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 undermines the fundamental review requirements of CEQA,” the complaint said.

The lawsuit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court by the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the Environmental Working Group, and the Sierra Club.

The groups sought a declaration that the agency was violating the California Environmental Quality Act and a prohibition on approvals of new oil and gas wells until the agency complies with “its legal requirements to evaluate and mitigate the significant environmental and public health impacts caused by hydraulic fracturing at oil and gas wells.”

State Regulations Being Prepared.

The regulator has requirements for oil and gas drilling that implicitly include fracturing but without explicitly addressing the practice or tailoring any rules to it. The California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources is preparing to issue regulations specifically to govern fracturing, but the draft requirements are not expected to be issued until sometime this fall (181 DEN A-11, 9/19/12).

Fracturing forces water, sand, and chemical additives into geologic layers to create cracks through which hydrocarbons can flow.

“California's regulations do not require notification to the Division when hydraulic fracturing occurs,” the agency says on its website in explaining its regulatory plan on fracturing. “There is a gap between the requirements placed on oil and gas operators to safely construct and maintain their wells, and the information they provide to the Division about hydraulic fracturing operations and steps taken to protect resources and the environment. The Department's pending regulatory process is intended to close that gap.”

A spokesman for the department said later Oct. 16 the department has not yet been formally served with the lawsuit and was holding off on comment until that occurred.

Agency Accused of Rubber Stamping.

The environmental activists want better analyses, not just more information. The exemptions from analysis and the findings of no significant impact have amounted to “rubber stamps” of permit applications, Earthjustice attorney George Torgun said during a telephone news conference announcing the litigation. Earthjustice is representing the groups in court.

The agency should issue programmatic environmental impact reports for each field or specific area and require appropriate risk mitigation measures, Torgun said.

During the spring and summer, the state agency held seven workshops to help gather information in preparation for its rulemaking. Members of the litigating environmental groups said during the news conference that they do not know the details of the regulations being drafted.

In any case, the planned regulations do not address what is going on, Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club said.

By Alan Kovski  

The lawsuit by four environmental groups against the California Department of Conservation over hydraulic fracturing is available at

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