Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California

In a victory for the ocean, a federal judge on Friday, November 9, ordered the Trump administration to cease issuing permits for offshore fracking and acidizing in federal waters — waters over 3 miles from shore — off the coast of Southern California.

U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez ruled that the federal government violated the Endangered Species Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act when it allowed fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and acidizing in offshore oil and gas wells in all leased federal waters off Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

Gutierrez issued an injunction prohibiting the two responsible federal agencies, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), from approving any plans or permits for the use of well stimulation treatments (WSTs) off California.

The court concluded that the Federal Defendants “satisfied their obligations” under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) in preparing the environmental assessment that is the subject of the suit.

“But theCourt also concludes that the Federal Defendants violated the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) by failing to consult with the relevant federal services and violated the Coastal Zone Management Act (“CZMA”) by failing to prepare a consistency determination and submit it to California for review as required by that statute,” Gutierrez wrote.

Hydraulic fracturing is a well stimulation technique that uses a pressurized liquid to fracture rock. Acidizing is another well stimulation technique that entails pumping acids into a well in order to dissolve the rock, increasing the production by creating channels in the rock to allow oil and natural gas to reach the well.

“Stopping offshore fracking is a big victory for California’s coast and marine life,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re glad the Trump administration lost this round in its push to expand dangerous oil operations off California. This decision protects marine life and coastal communities from fracking’s toxic chemicals.”

This order is an important step in addressing the expansion of fracking off California, although it doesn’t impact state waters within 3 miles from shore, where most of California’s offshore oil wells are located. Fortunately, litigation has prevented fracking from taking place in state waters for several years.     

The court order results from three lawsuits filed by the state of California, Center for Biological Diversity and Wishtoyo Foundation, and the Environmental Defense Center and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper challenging the federal government’s approval and environmental review of offshore fracking in the Pacific Ocean.

“Protecting the health of our coastal waters is essential to our commitment to conserving the ecosystem and marine life necessary for our maritime culture,” said Mati Waiya, executive director of Wishtoyo Foundation. “The decision by honorable Judge Gutierrez upholds the law that ensures the health of our ocean waters. We all celebrate this decision that honors the rights of our maritime resources.”

The court ruled that federal officials violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to complete its consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of offshore fracking and acidizing on endangered species, according to Monsell.

“The court also said the Trump administration violated the Coastal Zone Management Act when it failed to let the California Coastal Commission determine whether offshore fracking is consistent with California’s coastal management program,” said Monsell. “The judge ordered the feds to complete the process with the State of California before approving any permits for offshore fracking.”

“Endangered sea otters and other critters just won a reprieve from the Trump administration’s assault on our oceans for dirty oil,” Monsell stated. “We plan to celebrate this great victory in the fight against climate change and dirty fossil fuels. This court decision sends a strong message that we need to get dangerous drilling out of ocean, out of coastal areas and out of our state.”

Exxon Mobil Corporation and the American Petroleum Institute joined the Trump administration in opposing the lawsuits. The oil industry claims fracking is safe and poses no harm to the environment, noting that the Barack Obama administration permitted fracking and acidizing in federal lands and waters when the lawsuits were filed.

However, Center scientists contest oil industry claims that fracking is harmless, since they have found that at least 10 fracking chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including marine mammals and fish. “The California Council on Science and Technology has identified some common fracking chemicals to be among the most toxic in the world to marine animals,” said Monsell.

In a tweet, Attorney General Xavier Becerra responded to the ruling: “California didn’t back down when the federal government moved forward with plans for #fracking off our pristine shores. Today’s ruling stops @BOEM_DOI in their tracks and sends them back to the drawing board to follow the law. #ProtectOurCoast

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and the Santa Barbara Channel Keeper (SBCK) also lauded the judge’s ruling.

“We are pleased that the court has put a halt to the risky practice of fracking and acidizing off our coast,” said Maggie Hall, Staff Attorney at EDC, which represents EDC and SBCK in this matter. “This ruling ensures that no further permits will be issued until potential impacts to threatened and endangered species, including the Southern sea otter and Western snowy plover, are considered.”

Hall said EDC previously filed a lawsuit to stop fracking and acidizing in the region after discovering, through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, that more than fifty permits had been issued by the federal government without any public or environmental review. When the government failed to conduct full environmental review or consult with Fish and Wildlife Service, she said EDC and SBCK “had no choice but to file this lawsuit.”

I have requested a comment on the ruling from BOEM, but I haven’t heard any response yet.

Offshore drilling continues off California coast

While fracking in state and federal waters has been halted for the time being, traditional methods of offshore oil drilling continue in state and federal waters off the California coast. On September 8, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills, SB 834 and AB 1775, to block new federal offshore oil drilling along California’s coast, but consumer and environmental justice advocates pointed out that he needs to also to stop his expansion of new offshore drilling in state waters, where Brown controls four times the number of wells that the Donald Trump does.

In a separate action, Brown announced the state’s opposition to the federal government’s plan to expand oil drilling on public lands in California as 30,000 people from California and throughout the world marched in San Francisco to demand that Brown halt his pro-Big Oil policies, including the approval of 21,000 new oil and gas permits, an oil industry-written cap-and-trade program, the pollution of California aquifers with toxic oil waste, and the irrigation of crops with oil wastewater.

This action came days before mayors, governors, heads of industry and international leaders convened in San Francisco for the purpose of “mobilizing climate action” at the Global Climate Action Summit. Meanwhile, a coalition of indigenous, environmental justice and conservation groups engaged in direct action outside of the summit.

Consumer Watchdog thanked Governor Brown for signing SB 834 and AB 1775, but the group noted that Brown has jurisdiction over four times more state oil wells in state waters off California’s coast than oil wells Trump has control of in federal waters off the coast — and said Brown needs to shut those wells down.

“During his administration Brown, has issued more than 20,000 permits to drill new oil and gas wells in California, and that includes more than 200 permits for off shore wells in state waters — wells within 3 miles of the California coast,” said Jamie Court, President of Consumer Watchdog.

“Governor Brown cannot preach one mantra of ‘Drill baby drill’ in California and another when it comes to Trump drilling in federal waters off California,” said Court. “That’s hypocrisy not leadership. Governor Brown needs to revoke the permits for the hundreds of oil wells he has approved off California’s coast if he is willing to prevent Trump from drilling in federal waters off California. Today’s signing is an important step for coastal protection, but Brown needs to walk the walk and revoke the permits of the offshore wells he controls in state waters too.”

Between 2012 and 2017, Brown Administration regulators issued about 238 permits for new state wells in existing offshore leases, within three miles of the coast, and 171 of those offshore wells are currently active, according to analysis by the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance. Oil production continues from 1,366 offshore wells in existing leases, according to the California Department of Conservation in 2017.

“Overall the state under Brown controls four times as many offshore oil wells in state waters as Trump’s federal government controls in California water,” said Court.

An online map at www.BrownvTrumpoilmap.org shows all the state offshore wells under Brown’s control vs the federal wells under Trump’s control, with geolocation data for each.

Over 800 groups urge Governor Brown to freeze new oil and gas permits

Over 800 public interest groups have called upon Brown to limit neighborhood drilling and freeze new oil permits before he leaves the Governor’s Office in January and Gavin Newsom takes the helm. Brown has refused to do so to date. Read more at www.brownslastchance.org.

The vulnerability of the California coast to an oil spill was demonstrated during the Refugio Oil Spill of May 2015, when over 9 miles of the Southern California Coast, including four “marine protected areas,” were fouled with crude oil from badly corroded pipeline operation owned by the Plains All American Pipeline Company out of Houston Texas. A jury  found oil pipeline company Plains All American Pipeline, L.P. (Plains) guilty of one felony and eight misdemeanor counts in the Refugio Oil Spill of 2015 that fouled over 9 miles of coast.

Ironically, in an apparent conflict of interest, Catherine Reheis Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, the lobbying organization for the Plains All American Pipeline Company, served from 2009 to 2012 as the chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create marine “protected areas” (MPAs) in Southern California, including four MPAs being fouled by the spill.

Four “marine protected areas” created under Reheis-Boyd — the Goleta Slough, Campus Point, Naples and Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Areas — were imperiled by the oil spill that started at Refugio State Beach.

While state officials and the mainstream media continually portray California as the nation’s “green leader,” the reality is much different. In fact, Big Oil is the most powerful corporate lobby in California and the West – and the Western States Petroleum Association is the most powerful corporate lobbying organization.

”You may not realize it when thinking about politics in environmentally conscious and ‘green’ California, but an 18-month-long NBC Bay Area and Maplight investigation found the oil and gas industry paid $182 million to California politicians, PACs and political causes between 2001 and June 30, 2018,” reported NBC Bay Area on October 25.  “For the past year and a half, the Investigative Unit worked with Maplight, a nonpartisan group based in Berkeley that tracks campaign contributions to uncover just how much money and influence the oil and gas industry wields in Sacramento.”

More articles by:

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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