Summary

This case challenges California’s practice of issuing permits and approvals for oil and gas wells, including fracking wells, without requiring proper environmental review. EarthRights represents the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental non-profit with a strong focus on protecting communities and preventing catastrophic climate change, in suing California’s Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM).

In 2020 alone, CalGEM approved nearly 2,000 permits for new oil and gas wells without proper environmental review. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — the state’s bedrock environmental protection and community right-to-know law — state and local agencies are required to disclose, analyze, and mitigate a project’s environmental harms before approving oil and gas permits. But for years, CalGEM has granted approvals for new oil and gas activity without conducting any such studies. As a result, regulators have approved thousands of permits every year without requiring a review for health and environmental risks, including climate risk. Regulators have also skipped public notice, public comment, and hearing requirements that ordinarily apply.

The lawsuit challenges CalGEM’s approval of oil and gas projects, including drilling, fracking, and injection throughout the state. If successful, it would force CalGEM to complete a review of climate, health, and other environmental impacts before approving future projects.

The plaintiff is the Center for Biological Diversity (“Center”), a non-profit, public interest environmental organization dedicated to the protection of native species and their habitats through science, policy, and environmental law. The Center’s Climate Law Institute works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants, conserve natural resources, and minimize the public health risks facing communities exposed to industrial pollution.

The Center has thousands of members in California, as well as staff members in offices in Oakland and Los Angeles; its members and staff include individuals who live, work, and recreate in areas threatened by the adverse impacts of oil and gas development.
The defendant is the California Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM, a division of the State of California’s Department of Conservation. CalGEM is the primary regulator of the oil and gas industry in California.

Two oil and gas industry associations, the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), have intervened as Defendants. They claim that their interests will be harmed by the remedies that the Center seeks, and so they have joined the case to help defend CalGEM.
While not parties to the case, numerous major oil and gas companies — including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell – are members of WSPA and/or CIPA. It is their interests that the associations are trying to defend.
Lawyers from the Center’s Climate Law Institute originally filed the case, together with the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. Additional counsel for the Plaintiff include the public-interest law firms Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP and Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP.
The lawsuit alleges that although CEQA requires CalGEM to perform environmental reviews of projects that affect the environment, thousands of oil and gas wells are routinely approved without the necessary review. CEQA requires that state agencies considering a project that “may have a significant impact on the environment”—or that, together with other activities, may cumulatively have a significant impact on the environment—must prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before approval. An EIR must also identify, and the permitting agency must adopt, feasible mitigation measures in order to substantially lessen or avoid otherwise significant environmental effects. CalGEM routinely approves dozens of oil and gas wells every week, apparently without ever requiring an EIR.

These oil and gas wells contribute to climate change, as well as air pollution, water degradation, spills, land degradation, harms to wildlife, and loss of habitat. Abandoned and idle wells, which must be properly plugged, pose additional environmental risks.

Despite these impacts, CalGEM justifies its lack of environmental review in several ways. In many cases, it claims that new wells are exempt from CEQA review because they are part of “ongoing projects”—oil fields that started producing before CEQA was enacted; because they are part of “existing facilities”; and because they only involve “minor alterations to land.” In other cases, CEQA claims to rely on Environmental Impact Reviews conducted by other agencies, even if such reviews do not account for cumulative impacts, and even if they do not contemplate the specific wells at issue. In such cases CalGEM is supposed to review the adequacy of the underlying EIR; there is no evidence that it does so. In all cases, CalGEM is supposed to mitigate or avoid the environmental impacts of the projects it approves, and it simply fails to do so.

Timeline

Pre-19th Century

Indigenous peoples of what is now California have long known about oilfields in the state, using petroleum products for a variety of purposes including as a lubricant and sealant.

19th Century

Commercial oil production began in 1865, and by the 1890s oilfields were producing in Pico Canyon, in the Los Angeles Basin, and in Kern County, with over 500 wells in the Los Angeles area by the end of the century.

Early 20th Century

From 1900-1920, oil production in California ballooned from 4 million barrels to 77 million barrels, with the Standard Oil Company of California—now Chevron—the world’s largest producer. By 1903 California became the largest oil-producing state, but it eventually lost this position to Texas. Thousands of oil wells, later joined by thousands of methane (natural gas) wells, were drilled.

1970

California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) into law.

1970s – 2020

Although California’s position as an oil-producing state slipped to seventh place, thousands of new wells continued to be drilled. In the Lost Hills oilfield, for example, wells grew from about 1,151 in 1977 to 4,086 in 2020.

Statewide, the number of active wells grew from about 38,000 in 1974 to about 65,000 in 2020. Of the 15 largest oil fields in California, 7 more than doubled the number of active wells within their boundaries. 

From 2009 to 2018, the oil industry submitted an average of 3,476 new drilling applications each year. From 2013 to 2018, operators drilled 10,719 new oil and gas wells in California. In 2019 alone, CalGEM authorized permits to drill 2,533 new wells. 

2020

CalGEM permitted more than 1,900 additional wells. About 1,265 of these wells were approved according to “Notices of Determination” that the wells were approved under an Environmental Impact Review previously conducted by another agency. About 396 wells were approved under “Notices of Exemption” that the permits are exempt from CEQA review. About 400 wells were permitted without any publicly available CEQA documentation.

2021

On February 24, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against CalGEM in California Superior Court in Alameda County.

On April 16, the Western States Petroleum Association and the California Independent Petroleum Association moved to intervene as defendants; the motion was granted on May 19.

On July 6, EarthRights joined the case as counsel.