U.S. court ruling puts a stop to offshore fracking in federal waters off California

U.S. court ruling puts a stop to offshore fracking in federal waters off California

U.S. federal appeals court has issued a ruling in favour of upholding a ban on offshore fracking in federal waters off the California coast, explaining that the federal government needs to complete a full environmental review prior to issuing approved permits for offshore oil and gas drilling platforms.

Illustration; Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)

In a move which affirmed a lower court decision that prohibits offshore fracking, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last Friday blocked fracking off the California coast, ruling that the federal government violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and Coastal Zone Management Act when it allowed fracking in offshore oil and gas wells in all leased federal waters off California.

In a statement on 3 June 2022, the office of the California Attorney General, Rob Bonta, revealed that a decision was secured by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocking the Department of Interior (DOI) from authorising fracking on offshore platforms off the coast of California.

The statement further explains that the Ninth Circuit revealed in this decision that DOI’s final environmental analysis, which found that fracking poses “no significant impact,” was “flawed.” Therefore, BOEM and BSEE will now be required to conduct an environmental analysis and undergo federal and state consultation, if they still want to move forward with issuing fracking and acidising permits.

Commenting on this ruling, Attorney General Bonta, remarked: “Today’s decision is a win for our communities, our environment, and the rule of law. Offshore drilling – particularly fracking – pollutes our waterways, damages our environment, and exacerbates climate change. We saw the risks of offshore drilling first hand with the Huntington Beach oil spill last year, and we see it every day in the form of the climate crisis.”

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Bonta further explained that despite the risks posed by offshore drilling, which were made visible by this oil spill, “the Department of Interior found that authorizing fracking off the California coast would have no impact on our coastlines or oceans. As the Ninth Circuit found today, this is fundamentally untrue. I applaud the Court for holding the Department of Interior to account for its flawed environmental analysis and for strengthening the lower court’s decision to protect our coasts from harmful fracking.” 

Rob Bonta; Source: The office of the California Attorney General
Rob Bonta; Source: The office of the California Attorney General

The California Attorney General’s office also reminded that it filed in December 2016 a lawsuit together with the California Coastal Commission, challenging DOI’s final environmental assessment, which would have cleared the way for fracking, acidizing, and other advanced well treatments on the Pacific Outer Continental Shelf off the coast of California.

Moreover, three separate lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Wishtoyo Foundation, the state of California, and the Environmental Defense Center, which challenged the federal government’s approval and environmental review of offshore fracking in the Pacific Ocean, seem to have borne fruit judging by the appeals court’s latest decision.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that this decision upholds a district court’s 2018 ruling that the Interior Department violated the Endangered Species Act in allowing fracking and acidizing in federal waters off California without carefully studying the risks to endangered species like sea otters.

Decision seen as making headway to stop offshore drilling

Kristen Monsell, oceans program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, commented: “This is an amazing victory for California’s coast and marine life. Fracking is incredibly dangerous and has no place in our oceans. This decision will prevent more toxic chemicals from poisoning fish, sea otters, and other marine life. And it brings us a step closer to ending offshore drilling once and for all.”

Furthermore, the order reversed the lower court’s ruling that the department’s cursory environmental assessment satisfied its obligations to take a hard look at the environmental impacts of allowing these extreme forms of oil extraction, finding instead that the agency must prepare a comprehensive environmental analysis, says the Center for Biological Diversity.

In line with this, the latest appeals court order prohibits the DOI from issuing fracking permits until it completes Endangered Species Act consultation and an environmental impact statement that “fully and fairly evaluates all reasonable alternatives.”

In doing so the three-judge panel noted that the Department of the Interior “disregarded necessary caution when dealing with the unknown effects of well stimulation treatments and the data gaps associated with a program of regular fracking offshore California in order to increase production and extend well life.”

Mati Waiya, executive director of the Wishtoyo Foundation, stated: “Protecting the health and integrity of our coastal waters is essential to our commitment to conserving the marine ecosystem upon which Chumash people have thrived for more than 10,000 years. We all celebrate this decision that honours the rights of our people and protects their precious maritime resources.”

In addition, the appeals court says that the Interior Department 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.

In lieu of this, the Center for Biological Diversity’s scientists found that at least ten fracking chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including marine mammals and fish.

This is further supported by the California Council on Science and Technology’s research, which identified some common fracking chemicals to be among the most toxic in the world to marine animals.