Over 100 Pages Long: The List of Problems with California's Draft Environmental Report on Fracking


The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) recently released a draft of its environmental impact report on fracking and other well stimulation--and it comes up shockingly short on various fronts. We reviewed that draft with our partners at the Center for Biological Diversity, LA Waterkeeper, and the Sierra Club. Together we submitted a 107-page comment letter in response, along with two expert reports--one on the significant air pollution impacts and another discrediting claims about the economic impacts of well stimulation.

The oil and gas industry has been fracking in California for decades almost entirely free of any environmental review--leaving people's health, communities and the environment exposed and at-risk. That's one reason NRDC--along with a wide range of advocacy groups and impacted residents--has been calling for a moratorium. Unfortunately, previous legislative attempts at a moratorium have been thwarted and the Governor continues to ignore those calls. But in 2013, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 4, which could get some important rules in place for people who are being impacted right now.

Among other things, the bill required DOGGR to complete a full environmental impact report (known as an EIR) on the public health and environmental effects of well stimulation, including fracking and acidizing, by this summer. DOGGR, however, has a long way to go to fulfill that obligation to all of us here in California.

Here are a few of the concerns we highlighted in our comments:

  • DOGGR was supposed to examine the impact of fracking on the entire state, but excluded roughly half of California in its review, omitting 27 of California's 58 counties. That means, if you live in San Diego, San Francisco, Tuolumne, El Dorado, or the other 23 counties DOGGR left out, this EIR says that there will be zero impact from statewide fracking on your water, air, or wildlife. But, we all know that isn't true. You cannot neatly contain pollution inside political boundaries. The impacts are everywhere.

  • In the EIR, DOGGR magically concludes that allowing fracking everywhere in the state--without limit--is the "environmentally preferable" alternative to other options (some of which are certainly environmentally preferable, like using renewable energy sources instead). In its review, DOGGR is required, by law, to consider feasible alternatives to the current plan--which is to allow fracking everywhere and anywhere in California. DOGGR does list some seemingly attractive alternatives: the State could prohibit fracking, or ban it in urban areas, outlaw fracking on top of active fault lines, use renewable energy and/or efficiency instead, or restrict the use of fresh water for fracking. However, after doing some funny math, they come to the conclusion that fracking everywhere is best for the environment.

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  • For a project as multi-headed as statewide fracking, the EIR mentions stunningly few options for mitigation and a lack of sufficient protections for communities to help guard against fracking's myriad risks. Often, DOGGR simply says that for mitigation it will make a "plan," conduct a "study," or require a "report." That's not what the law requires. Mitigation delayed is mitigation denied. Even worse, the measures DOGGR does propose are often vague and unenforceable.

  • DOGGR concludes that the noise pollution from fracking is temporary and not significant. Tell that to Walt and Marilee Desatoff. They lived in Shafter, CA but had to abandon their family home when the noise from fracking became too much. In this video, Walt describes the flare that burned all day and night, eventually driving them out of Shafter. For mitigation from noise, DOGGR says that wells drilled close to a "sensitive receptor" (e.g. a hospital or school) should try to minimize noise if feasible. And, if not feasible? Drillers should offer alternative temporary lodging. Temporary lodging to school children and hospital patients? That's not mitigation. That's an unworkable mess.

  • The agency recommends flimsy barriers against hazards and hazardous materials. DOGGR recognizes that fracking and acid stimulation can expose people, crops, and wildlife to harm from the slew of highly toxic chemicals regularly used in the process. But to guard us from that risk, DOGGR offers one lonely mitigation measure: the requirement to place a physical barrier between the soil and hazardous materials at the drilling site. How exactly will that work offshore? And, hazards aren't contained to the drilling site--they are found throughout the process: in trucks transporting chemicals to the well, in chemical containers, in sump pits, in air emissions from all these sources, and in produced water that is trucked and disposed of off-site. DOGGR can and should do more. At a minimum, DOGGR could require industry to reduce the toxicity of its stimulation fluids and establish cradle-to-grave collection, testing, transportation, treatment, and disposal requirements for all fracking fluids and waste.
  • DOGGR fails to address protections for our State's most vulnerable communities, which are already heavily burdened by pollution from fracking and other industry. A recent report written by my public health colleagues analyzed state data and found that people of color make up nearly 92 percent of the 1.8 million Californians living within a mile of oil and gas development. Yet, DOGGR fails to provide any meaningful analysis of the environmental justice impacts of well stimulation and simply states that the effects will be "unknown."
  • DOGGR states that the majority of potential impacts on wildlife will be less than significant. But that conclusion is based on a sweeping dismissal of important habitats and endangered species. In perhaps the most egregious example, DOGGR ignores the impacts to all of California's marine life north of Santa Cruz, even though San Mateo and Humboldt counties are both north of Santa Cruz and have active oil and gas fields near the coast. For those counties, DOGGR simply says that they "do not contain coastal and marine resources." That's ludicrous. Northern California's waters are world famous for their biological diversity: To pick just one 40 ton example, the endangered gray whale migrates past both counties every year. DOGGR should be identifying and guarding sensitive habitat, not ignoring it.

For these reasons and many more, the draft EIR is patently inadequate. This draft EIR absolutely cannot serve as the final environmental review for any well stimulation project. Each proposed fracking permit must be considered on a case-by-case basis so that specific impacts - to that community and the surrounding wildlife - can be considered.

We hope DOGGR will engage our comments seriously. In the meantime, we will continue our call on the Governor to put a moratorium on fracking and other risky well stimulation in California.

Thanks to Jamie Friedland for contributing to this post. Photo credits: Sarah Craig/NRDC