Three environmental groups sued California’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) earlier this week, contending that DOGGR’s issuance of more than 200 oil drilling permits violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The suit (pdf) charges DOGGR with “turning a blind eye” to the claimed risks associated with oil drilling and associated hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The environmental groups – the Association of Irritated Residents, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Sierra Club – filed a petition for write of mandate in Kern County Superior Court. The petition states that DOGGR has issued 214 drilling permits to Aera Energy, LLC (Aera) for new wells in the South Belridge Oil Field in Kern County, and that Aera plans to hydraulic fracture at least 144 of those wells. The petitioners complain that allowing the proposed drilling operations and well stimulation techniques, without a full environmental review for each well, implicates a host of environmental concerns, including the release of air pollutants, greenhouse gases, and other toxic chemicals, the risk of contamination to land and water, human health risks, and the use of scarce water resources during a period of extended drought.
The petition asserts a single cause of action for a claimed violation of CEQA, contending that “DOGGR has a nondiscretionary duty to comply with the statutory and regulatory requirements of [CEQA]” in permitting oil and gas wells in the state. The petitioners seek a writ of mandate directing DOGGR to comply with CEQA by conducting, at a minimum:
an initial study to evaluate whether the project will have significant effects, including but not limited to: a description of the project’s environmental setting, information identifying the project’s environmental effects, and a discussion of ways to mitigate the project’s significant effects. (CEQA Guidelines §§ 15063(d).)
Such a review, according to petitioners, much be conducted for each of the 214 drilling permits individually. Thus, in their prayer for relief, petitioners seek (a) to compel DOGGR to comply with CEQA for each of the drilling permits by performing a complete environmental review of the impacts of each well, (b) to have DOGGR’s prior approvals of the drilling permits set aside, and (c) to prevent DOGGR from granting any further approvals to Aera for drilling operations in the South Belridge field until CEQA review is completed.
This is not the first time parties have sued DOGGR for alleged violations of CEQA in connection with oil well drilling and associated well stimulation operations. In one such case, CBD v. Department of Conservation (Alameda County Case No. RG12652054), CBD contended that DOGGR violated CEQA by engaging in a pattern and practice of failing to comply with CEQA in issuing permits for oil wells that involved fracking. Various industry groups moved for dismissal of the action on the ground that newly-enacted SB 4 (pdf) created a permitting scheme that rendered CBD’s “pattern and practice” claims either moot or unripe, depending on their timing. Most relevant to the present case, however, was the court’s observation that CBD’s complaint did not seek relief based on DOGGR’s review of individual wells. Thus, the court did not expressly opine on the claimed need for CEQA compliance for individual wells.
This case is set against the backdrop of SB 4’s mandate that DOGGR and the Department of Conservation prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) for any potential environmental impacts of well stimulation in the state, with that EIR to be certified by July 1, 2015. (Public Resources Code Section 3161(b)(3),(4).) Undoubtedly, SB 4’s treatment of CEQA requirements for well stimulation techniques will be a central focus of the litigation.
Tagged → AIR, Association of Irritated Residents, California Environmental Quality Act, CBD, Center for Biological Diversity, CEQA, Department of Conservation, Division of Oil and Gas, DOGGR, Fracking, Hydraulic fracturing, Sierra Club