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Challenging Unregulated Fracking in California

As the sun sets on another California day, a flare burns in an oil field near Bakersfield, CA.

As the sun sets on another California day, a flare burns in an oil field near Bakersfield, CA.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Case Overview

As hundreds of California oil and gas wells undergo dangerous hydraulic fracturing without government oversight, environmental advocates, represented by Earthjustice, are in court to force the agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry to abide by the state’s foremost law that protects public health and the environment.

The lawsuit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, charges that the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has failed to consider or evaluate the risks of fracking, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Although DOGGR is the state agency charged with regulating all oil and gas well activity in California, the agency admits it has not permitted or monitored its impacts and has never formally evaluated the potential environmental and health effects of the practice, even as it continues to approve new permits for oil and gas wells.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is a controversial procedure used by drillers in California to extract deposits of oil and gas from depleted wells or from geologic formations where conventional drilling is ineffective. Hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of water are mixed with toxic chemicals and injected down each well at high pressure, fracturing the underground rock formation to force the oil or gas to flow to the surface. The Western States Petroleum Association estimates that more than 600 California wells were fracked in 2011 alone; fracking has been used in California for more than 50 years. Fracking is also associated with large releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Other parts of the country are in the midst of a fracking-enabled drilling rush. Along with this rush have come troubling reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters, earthquakes, and explosions.

California wells have been pumping oil for more than one hundred years. As more easily exploited petroleum deposits have been used up and prices have climbed, oil companies have turned to fracking to increase production. Enticed by claims that more than 14 billion barrels of oil are trapped in the Monterey and Santos shale formations, oil and gas companies have commenced an exploratory drilling and fracking campaign beneath central and southern California. These shale formations span 1,700 square miles across the San Joaquin Valley to the Pacific Ocean, including the Los Angeles basin, a region crisscrossed with active earthquake faults.

Under current DOGGR policy, the agency has been rubberstamping oil and gas drilling activity, declaring it exempt from environmental review or issuing “negative declarations” that such activity will have “no significant effect” on the environment, without any study or mention of the potential impacts from fracking.

The California Environmental Quality Act, signed into state law by Governor Reagan, is a cornerstone of environmental protection in the state. The coalition of environmental advocates is asking the court to declare DOGGR in violation of CEQA for its failure to consider, evaluate, and mitigate the impacts of fracking when approving permits for oil and gas wells.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, Environmental Working Group and Sierra Club.

Case Updates

January 24, 2014 | Blog Post

Thirsty Industry Wants to Frack Parched State

With severe drought conditions predicted for winter, California's Gov. Brown is demanding that state agencies immediately scale back water consumption, while urging Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent. Yet, contrary to enforcing water conservation, Brown recently gave the ‘green light’ to fracking California’s Monterey Shale—a process that consumes vast quantities of water.

January 2, 2014 | In the News: New York Times

California Introduces Emergency Rules for Fracking

As hundreds of California oil and gas wells undergo dangerous hydraulic fracturing without government oversight, environmental advocates, represented by Earthjustice, are in court to force the agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry to abide by the state’s foremost law that protects public health and the environment.

June 18, 2013 | In the News: Examiner.com

Expanding natural gas exports would encourage natural gas fracking in California

As the nation’s largest oil and gas companies push the Obama administration to allow the unlimited exportation of liquefied natural gas, a swarm of environmental groups has urged the President to oppose such an expansion until additional environmental and economic studies have been conducted. Unlimited liquefied natural gas exportation would increase domestic gas prices and multiply the harmful environmental and health consequences of fracking.

April 5, 2013 | Feature

From the President: Going to Extremes Is Bad Energy Policy

Just as clean, renewable energy is lifting off and the impacts of climate disruption become ever more visible, fossil energy production is becoming dramatically more extreme. But extreme fossil energy production is exactly what we don’t need.

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