Federal Judge Rules That Government Can’t Just Ignore Environmental Concerns
Anti-fracking advocates in California are marking a big victory as a judge has ruled that no, you can’t just go drilling around willy-nilly without sufficient environmental impact reports. The ruling, made in response to a suit from environmental organizations, doesn’t cancel the oil leases originally issued for the land, but it does mandate that the groups reach a resolution with the government, which illegally granted the leases in the first place. That provides some wiggle-room for fighting fracking in the Monterey Shale, and it sent a clear message to the Obama Administration: fracking is not popular in the United States.
The story started in 2011, when the Bureau of Land Management in Monterey County issued potentially lucrative oil and gas leases without sufficient environmental analysis to determine the possible effects of fracking. A total of 2,500 acres in one of California’s most beautiful regions was slated for oil and gas development to access an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil. Environmental groups were deeply concerned about the potential risks to such development, especially given that it bordered a major watershed.
It was a surprise to see such proposals in California, a state where anti-oil and gas production and organizing have resulted in environmental clampdowns and some of the toughest laws on alternative energy production and emissions standards in the country. The state is famous for its level of environmental activity and focus on sustainable use of natural resources, and the case was a grim reminder that California’s reputation doesn’t spread throughout the entire state.
In the suit, activists argued that the BLM had not considered the risks before granting the leases, and Judge Paul Grewal agreed: “[the leases] did not adequately consider the development impact of hydraulic fracturing techniques…when used in combination with technologies such as horizontal drilling…The potential risk for contamination from fracking, while unknown, is not so remote or speculative to be completely ignored.” Granting the leases as-is was a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs such activities.
His decision not to cancel the leases in the face of his findings was a blow for environmental advocates, but they’re still rallying. The decision puts any development on hold and provides breathing room for advocates to continue fighting. Critically, it also sends a message to the government as well as the BLM that it’s not allowed to dodge requirements for careful environmental analysis before leasing land for development, putting the Obama Administration on notice that when it comes to fracking, it had better tread carefully with leases on public lands.
The judge may not have said outright that fracking is dangerous, but he clearly referenced the concerns about the environmental hazards associated with fracking specifically in addition to oil and gas development in general in his ruling. That’s significant, because the government still seems caught in a web of denial when it comes to facing the facts about the dangers of fracking.
Anti-fracking advocates across the nation and the world are mustering a growing collection of evidence against the safety and reliability of fracking and using it to great effect in protests, lawsuits and other actions intended to halt or prevent proposed oil and gas developments in oil shale country. This case will join the body of work done by activists to fight fracking and encourage the government to turn to other means to support its energy needs — and it’s just possible that the ultimate resolution in this particular story will be a cancellation or a radical scaleback of the contested leases in response to more careful environmental review.
Photo credit: CREDO.fracking