July 6, 2021, Washington, D.C.–As a record heatwave induced by the escalating climate crisis bears down on the western United States, EarthRights International today joined a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (The Center) against the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) challenging its practice of permitting new oil and gas wells without environmental review. Center for Biological Diversity v. California Geologic Energy Management Division alleges that as the primary regulator of the oil and gas industry in California, CalGEM is issuing permits and approvals for new oil and gas wells in violation of California law.
“Oil and gas production in California is directly driving the climate crisis and has significant impacts on communities there and worldwide,” said Marco Simons, General Counsel for EarthRights. “The record-breaking heatwave that has afflicted the west coast in recent weeks is connected to unchecked oil and gas extraction, which CalGEM is enabling by failing to require proper environmental reviews. As a result, thousands of oil and gas wells that are endangering public health and the environment are routinely approved in California. CalGEM needs to uphold its responsibilities to protect Californians from the harmful effects of fossil fuel production, not bend to corporations pursuing profit at the expense of communities and the planet.”
California is currently one of the top 10 oil-producing states in the U.S. From 2009 to 2018, the oil and gas industry submitted an average of 3,476 new drilling applications each year, and from 2013 to 2018, operators drilled 10,719 new oil and gas wells in California. 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. Regulators have also skipped public notice, public comment, and hearing requirements that ordinarily apply. If successful, the lawsuit would force CalGEM to complete a review of climate, health, and other environmental impacts before approving future projects.
“It’s outrageous that Gov. Newsom continues to rubberstamp new oil and gas projects while California’s scorched by heatwaves and drought,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “State regulators can’t just ignore the law. They need to do a full review of the harms oil and gas projects can cause to nearby communities, wildlife, and the climate.”
In addition to CalGEM, 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.
“This case isn’t just about the harm inflicted by the fossil fuel industry on California and its communities,” added Simons. “With two major fossil fuel trade associations signing on as defendants, it is clear that the industry is circling the wagons to ensure that corporations like Chevron and Exxon get to continue extracting oil and gas with no regard for the escalating climate crisis or the effects their activities have on frontline communities–in California and elsewhere.”
According to a study released in 2020 by the FrackTracker Alliance, 2.17 million Californians–many of whom are people of color–live within half a mile of an oil or gas well; another 5 million live within a mile of one. In addition to driving pollution that contributes to public health problems like asthma, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems, and birth defects, oil and gas production contributes to climate change, water and land degradation, spills, harms to wildlife, and loss of habitat. Moreover, abandoned and idle wells, which must be properly plugged, pose additional environmental risks.
On February 24, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic filed suit against CalGEM in California Superior Court in Alameda County. Additional counsel for the plaintiff includes the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic and public-interest law firms Schonbrun Seplow Harris Hoffman & Zeldes LLP and Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP. In May, the court allowed the Western States Petroleum Association and the California Independent Petroleum Association to intervene as defendants.