Conservation group sues California oil regulator for approving wells with inadequate environmental review
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing a California regulator of approving new oil and gas wells without conducting sufficient environmental review.
The wells in question — approved by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) — are located in Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo counties, in close proximity to homes, beaches and important habitats, according to the lawsuit.
CalGEM’s approvals, the complainants argued, are based on out-of-date environmental reviews that fail to consider “climate change or the risks to human health that have become well understood since that time.”
“State regulators are neglecting their duty to protect the public from these dangerous oil and gas projects,” Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement.
“Putting new wells near homes, beaches, and dwindling habitat for wildlife is the exact opposite of public safety,” Jones added, describing the approvals as “not only outrageous but illegal.”
The first set of approvals applies to the drilling of 15 new oil and gas wells in the Wilmington oilfield in Long Beach — situated on an artificial island less than 1,000 feet from a public beach, according to the lawsuit.
The wells, per the lawsuit, are also within 3,200 feet of residential neighborhoods, despite recent legislation that sought to ban drilling within that proximity.
Although California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed that bill into law in September, it is now on hold due to a referendum backed by the oil and gas industry.
The second set of approvals applies to six new wells in San Luis Obispo County’s Arroyo Grande oilfield, where about three-quarters of existing active and idle wells are already situated within the 3,200-foot setback distance, according to the lawsuit.
That distance, the document explained, was “identified by an independent panel of scientists as reducing health harms to frontline communities.”
In addition to this proximity to human homes, the Arroyo Grande oilfield also overlaps with a critical habitat for a variety of threatened species, including the California coast horned lizard and a rare wildflower called Pismo clarkia, the complainants added.
CalGEM’s approvals, according to the lawsuit, were based on obsolete environmental reviews: a 1973 Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the City of Long Beach and a 2004 Environmental Impact Report certified by the County of San Luis Obispo.
Describing the former as “an expired 50-year-old study,” the complainants stressed that the second is irrelevant because it only assessed the potential harms of a 125-well project. Since then, CalGEM has approved 160 wells, including the six most recent ones, per the lawsuit.
Stressing that the well approvals in these oilfields have already surpassed either the number of wells or original drilling timeframe covered in the studies, the Center for Biological Diversity maintained that CalGEM’s “reliance on these reviews was illegal.”
“With increased wildfires, sea-level rise and drought, the Central Coast is on the front line of the climate crisis,” Heidi Harmon, former mayor of San Luis Obispo, said in a statement.
“When the state rubberstamps new oil drilling, the consequences are steep for our community’s water, our property values, and our children's future,” Harmon added.
Jan Victor Andasan, a community organizer for the Long Beach-based East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice, argued that such action also perpetuates “environmentally racist policies that add to the health harms residents have been facing for years.”
“Frontline communities are already overburdened with a multitude of pollution sources in neighborhoods like West Long Beach, from oil production sites to goods-movement operations,” Andasan said.
“People in many working-class Black and Brown communities are simply trying to breathe, and to do that they need agencies to practice thorough, thoughtful review,” he added.
The Hill has reached out to California’s Department of Conservation — which houses CalGEM — for comment.