Source: http://www.sfgate.com, October 16, 2012
By: David R. Baker
A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses California regulators of turning a blind eye to the dangers of fracking, in defiance of the state’s tough environmental laws.
The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court by five environmental groups, would force the state office that oversees oil drilling to study the possible effects on groundwater and air quality before letting companies use hydraulic fracturing.
The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources currently lets oil companies frack wells without an environmental impact report, according to the suit. Such reports are required for most major construction or infrastructure projects.
“It’s time for our regulators and our oil and gas industry to stop denying the negative impacts of fracking and start working to prevent them,” said Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks.
The suit asks a judge to rule that the division has violated the California Environmental Quality Act, a cornerstone of the state’s environmental regulations.
The suit comes at a time when fracking is growing more common in the state. The practice involves pumping a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack rocks that contain oil or natural gas.
Fracking has already triggered a boom in oil and gas production in states such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas. It has also been blamed for tainting water supplies, sparking fierce debates in some of those states.
“We’ve learned in our state-by-state fights that in the face of intense industry pressure, state agencies need to be pushed to do the right thing,” said George Torgun, an attorney with Earthjustice. “That’s what this suit is all about.”
Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the Environmental Working Group and the Sierra Club.
Environmentalists have been urging California officials to create specific regulations for fracking, which is currently treated as just one oil-production technique out of many. The division is now developing such rules. A first draft is expected this fall.
A spokesman for the division said Tuesday that the office had not yet seen the suit.
Oil companies have fracked wells in California for decades. But fracking’s use within the state appears to be on the rise. A website that tracks fracking across the country shows 456 wells that have recently been fracked in California.
The technique can free oil and natural gas trapped in shale rock, and California boasts what could be the nation’s largest oil shale formation. The Monterey Shale, which lies beneath much of Central California and the southern San Joaquin Valley, could hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil, according to one federal government estimate.
But complaints of water contamination have followed fracking’s rapid spread across the country. The oil industry maintains that fracking in itself isn’t the problem. Instead, poorly built wells have allowed natural gas and chemicals to migrate up the exterior of some wells, seeping into aquifers.
Oil companies argue that California already regulates well construction, regardless of whether the well is fracked.
“Each well is vigorously regulated by the state – that’s what’s missing from the verbiage of this suit,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association.