Federal Court Rules Against Fracking Industry In California

fracking pads, Wyoming
Fracking pads in Wyoming – won’t be happening in California | photo credit: EcoFlight

In what is being hailed as a “landmark ruling” a federal judge in California has ruled (on April 8, 2013) that federal authorities at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) broke the law when they leased government-controlled land to oil and natural gas drilling companies without proper environmental oversight and assessment of the risks of hydraulic fracturing, aka ‘fracking.

The land in question involves some 2,700 acres of land in the Monterey and Fresno counties.

The legal suit against the BLM decision was spearheaded by The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)

Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at CBD who argued the case for the plaintiffs commented after the decision:

This important decision recognizes that fracking poses new, unique risks to California’s air, water, and wildlife that government agencies can’t ignore. This is a watershed moment—the first court opinion to find a federal lease sale invalid for failing to address the monumental dangers of fracking.

Citizens and officials of Monterey County vehemently opposed the lease/sale when it was issued back in 2011, arguing that fracking would place the municipal water supply at risk.

Local landowner were also vocal in their opposition to the lease, fearing that it signaled the beginning of a fracking “boom” in their commercially important agricultural region. Agriculture is California’s biggest industry by far and the region encompassing Monterey county is referred to as “America’s Salad Bowl” due to the massive quantity of lettuce, tomatoes, and other typical salad vegetables and fruits it produces. The BLM-leased lands would utilize the same Salinas river watershed as the the region’s agricultural and wine-growing interests. Water contamination from fracking fluid chemicals (e.g., from the BTEX family of carcinogens) could put at risk the quality of food that millions of US consumers eat on a daily or weekly basis.

The Environmental and Health Risks of Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing, which involves the high-pressure pumping of sand and chemically laden “fracking fluids” deep underground to fracture rocks and release trapped oil and gas has been linked to water and air pollution in other states like Wyoming and New York.

fracking risks diagram
Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, showing potential environmental effects.(image credit: Mikenorton)

Buttressing these concerns is a recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health which found evidence that fracking-related pollution (especially the release of methane gas) contributes to neurological and respiratory illnesses amongst those living near fracking well sites, increasing the  risk of cancer.

The actual risks of exposure to fracking-related chemicals are not completely known as the industry is not required to comply with chemical reporting laws imposed on other industries. However, evidence is sure to accumulate in the coming years as contamination spread to aquifers.

“The court recognized that fracking is different from the oil and gas development that California has known thus far,” said Nathan Matthews, the Sierra Club’s lead attorney in the suit (source, see link below). “The BLM argued that oil and gas production on these leases would be no different from what they have seen in the pre-fracking past, with the same level of production and same types of environmental impacts. The court recognized that fracking and modern unconventional production have changed the game.”

More on the Landmark Ruling

In his April 8, 2013 decision, federal judge Paul Grewal wrote: “BLM argues that the effects of fracking on the parcels at issue are largely unknown. The court agrees, [and] this is precisely why proper investigation is so crucial.”

Citing uncertainty as to whether the leases should be nullified or if the fracking activity itself should be blocked, the federal court has requested a joint recommendation between the plaintiffs and the BLM regarding how to proceed from this point. Both the CBD and the Sierra Club hold that the land should be set aside. Regardless of the court’s specific decision regarding either the legality of the leases or stopping the activity on the land, the outcome would be the same — “no fracking on these leases for the foreseeable future” — according to Cummings of the CBD.

“We hope this decision will motivate regulators and the legislature in California and elsewhere to acknowledge the risks posed by fracking and the folly of allowing fracking to occur until these risks are understood and accounted for,” stated Matthews.

The legal decision is quite possibly the beginning of a larger political pushback  against the reckless “Drill, baby, drill” fracking frenzy going on in America today.

For more information on how we can move beyond natural gas, check out the Beyond Natural Gas Campaign.

For contrary information (negative findings/studies) on chemical exposure risks from fracking, check out my previous article Fracking Update: Two Investigations Give ‘OK’ to Controversial Drilling Process, But Doubts Remain.

To voice your opinion on this important environmental issue, visit the Sierra Club petition site and tell the Administration to protect our public lands and communities from the dangers of fracking.

Some source material (including quotes) for this post came from The Planet blog (Sierra Cub) post: ‘Landmark Court Victory Against Fracking in California’ by Deb Nardone

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