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California State and Counties Fight Feds over Big Oil

Golden State Takes on Federal Attempts to Rollback Environment Protections

Photo: Paul Wellman California is hard at work fighting oil expansion in the state as the Trump administration and major oil companies push to change federal regulations on coastal oil activities.

In what looked like a special California celebration of Earth Day, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and the state attorney general have spent the week pushing back on big oil. On April 23, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass a 45-day moratorium on the drilling of certain wells. On Wednesday, April 24, federal judges upheld an offshore drilling moratorium along the Ventura coast. Soon after, a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge fined Plains All American Pipeline $3.3 million dollars for the 2015 Refugio Beach Oil Spill. Around the same time, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra submitted a letter to the Trump administration, signed by attorney generals from eight other states, pushing back on proposed federal regulation changes for coastal oil activities. Wrapping off the week, Congressmember Salud Carbajal released a statement opposing the Bureau of Land Management fracking proposal for Santa Barbara County.

If California is hard at work fighting oil expansion in the state, the Trump administration and major oil companies are continuing to push their agendas forward as well. When federal Judge Philip S. Gutierrez ordered the Trump administration in November 2018 to stop issuing permits for offshore fracking and acidizing in federal waters, DCOR oil company sought a special exemption to continue fracking, alleging the moratorium caused it financial harm. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Center, the court denied its request, ruling that harm to endangered species outweighed any monetary harm to the company. That order came after the courts found that federal officials had cut environmental impact corners. “Federal officials violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to complete its consultation with expert wildlife agencies,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity, which joined the legal opposition. “The Trump administration [also] 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.” The feds were ordered to comply with the state’s environmental impact processes before continuing or approving any permits for offshore fracking.

Questions about the federal officials’ process in evaluating environmental impacts were again raised after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its 1.2 million-acre hydraulic fracking proposal in California. The proposal includes more than 120,000 acres of federal land in Santa Barbara County. ForestWatch Executive Director Jeffrey Kuyper expressed concerns about BLM fast tracking the proposal back in August 2018 when the proposal was first put forth. Congressmember Carbajal agreed. “The Central Coast has a long history of environmental stewardship and we must continue speaking out to protect our clean air, open spaces, and wildlife habitat,” he said.

Photo: Paul Wellman

By sidestepping state regulations, federal agencies are increasingly seen as seeking to reduce state authority and oversight of offshore gas, oil, and energy projects. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has submitted an advance notice proposing to rollback state oversight of coastal projects. Its request for feedback from states was not well received.

Currently, states have the authority to review coastal projects to ensure they’re abiding by state law and can appeal coastal project permits that raise environmental and public health concerns. “The Trump administration can try and disguise this as an invitation for feedback,” said California’s Becerra, “but it is painfully evident that this is really a hostile attempt to force offshore drilling down our throats.”

Finally, last week, Ventura Board of Supervisors also stepped up to the plate and halted the drilling of steam injection wells in their county near an aquifer. In order to pass the measure, the board had to declare an immediate threat to the public health of Ventura County citizens, reported the Ventura County Star. The decision followed the U.S. Geological Survey’s discovery of petroleum-related gases in wells supplying irrigation water for Oxnard. It’s unclear whether the presence of gases are a result of a natural process or a containment failure in the oil and gas production system, wrote the Star. What is clear is the importance of environmental impact reports in approving oil-related projects.

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