Protecting NEPA environmental review is essential to protect clean water from the risks of fracking

The need to protect some of California’s rich agricultural land provides the latest example of how important NEPA is in safeguarding our nation’s natural resources. Last week a federal court ruled that  fracking proposals there need to look at the air and water impacts of fracking more thoroughly. This is just the latest powerful reminder of why "NEPA" is so important. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. As we’ve blogged before, NEPA is an incredibly successful law that establishes a process to assess the environmental impacts of a proposed project through an analysis like an Environmental Impact Statement, thoroughly consider all costs and benefits, and maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms. Then it gives the public, including independent scientists, an opportunity to provide input.

NEPA is really reasonable. That is why decades ago it passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 372 to 15 and passed the Senate with no recorded dissent, and was signed in to law by President Nixon, a Californian and Republican.

Yet some folks are always trying to drag NEPA down. They blame it for all kinds of things, like delaying polluting projects. Keep in mind that NEPA sets up a process and ensures the public has information on what is planned, whether it is building a rail yard, logging a forest, or fracking for oil and gas—but it doesn’t dictate what projects should and should not be approved. Every year, NRDC fights in Congress to stop bills that would weaken NEPA.

There’s a 2013 version of the “Let’s weaken NEPA” effort. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke recently blogged, a bill being considered in the Senate to amend the Water Resources Development Act would shorten the time available for completing environmental review. This means that environmental agencies will not get the time they need to fully evaluate the environmental impacts of different projects and develop the best project, incorporating public input. The sponsor of this bill is Senator Barbara Boxer--usually an environmental champion and someone who has questioned the safety of BLM fracking policies.

Now, back to that California court case on fracking.

The Bureau of Land  Management (BLM) has been approving the newest type of fracking—in horizontal wells--around the country without the necessary environmental impacts analysis required by NEPA.

Fracking for oil or gas in horizontal wells is significantly different than old-school fracking, requiring more water consumption, truck traffic and emissions, socio-economic impacts, air pollution, generation of potentially toxic waste, and more. Unfortunately, the BLM is not analyzing these impacts, but is instead relying on NEPA analysis that was done for the older type of fracking to justify approving new fracking in horizontal wells. We are aware of this occurring in Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio.

If deadlines are shortened for NEPA review, as is proposed in this Senate bill, we would expect to see more of this shoddy NEPA review in projects around the country.

Yet last week a federal judge in California found that when the BLM allowed fracking without adequate NEPA review it violated the law.

The Court reminded us that “NEPA requires that BLM evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental effects of its actions.” The Court found that proper investigation was “crucial” due to the many unknown risks of fracking and the threats to important local drinking water resources. (For more information on the drinking water resources at risk in this particular case, see a prior blog post).

This decision should send a loud and clear message to the BLM around the country, from California to Alabama, that it should stop approving new fracking without thorough environmental review of all the impacts.

It is also a message to Senators who have proposed weakening NEPA for any type of project: NEPA is the public’s safety net for evaluating projects that can have significant environmental impacts. Any weakening of NEPA will also weaken the public’s ability to protect clean air and clean water and have a  say in federal actions.

Congratulations to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club for their work on this important court decision.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Policy Analyst, Land & Wildlife program

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