California's Final Fracking EIR Leaves Communities to Protect Themselves

Yesterday, the new head of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), State Oil & Gas Supervisor Steven Bohlen, certified the Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of statewide oil and gas well stimulation treatments, including hydraulic fracturing, in California. At the same time, the permanent regulations for the use of oil and gas well stimulation in California went into effect. DOGGR heralded the day "a milestone in California's history" of regulating fracking. And it was, sort of. It marked a step forward in regulating practices that have been happening in California for far too long with no oversight. But yesterday was also a day of monument-sized missed opportunities.

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July 1, 2015 will forever stand out as a day when DOGGR--despite a new division head and some positive changes toward modernizing its good ol' boy ways--decided to stay the course and let slip an opportunity to conduct true environmental review. The EIR is vague, the alternatives analysis unfairly tips the scales in favor of fracking, and the limited mitigation detailed in this tome of mediocrity is timid and only "suggested," not required.

On March 16, 2015, NRDC and some of our partners submitted a 107-page technical comment letter detailing the shortfalls of DOGGR's draft environmental review document. A lot of ink was spilled in the Final EIR to respond to our and other's comments, but on first read, those pages of responses did not translate into action. The tepid updates to the Final EIR were to relatively minor matters, and the foundational problems we identified way back in March persist.

Here is a list of the highlights:

  1. The alternatives analysis remains unfairly rigged. The scales are tipped from the outset in favor of unrestricted statewide fracking and other well stimulation. The EIR assumes the other well stimulation alternatives would not include mitigation and under the "no action" alternative that fracking would continue unabated.
  2. In a backwards turn of events, the EIR has been finalized mere days before the California Council on Science and Technology's (CCST's) Independent Scientific Study is set to be released. The result is that the EIR, by design, does not benefit from all of the hard work and findings of the scientific study and, therefore, is not as protective of public health or the environment as it could be. (In a final twist of this nonsense pretzel of a timeline, the permanent regulations--although released yesterday--were finalized in January and take neither the findings of the EIR nor the upcoming CCST Study into account.)
  3. The Final EIR concludes that fracking could have "significant and unavoidable impacts" on air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and public safety. However, the mitigation measures continue to be "suggestions," and DOGGR itself now describes them as a "flexible" floor. A floor is a minimum level of protection that you do not cross. It should never be flexible.
  4. Finally, the EIR creates a dangerous avenue whereby, for a specific future fracking project, the statewide EIR could serve as the only analysis and no new environmental review document would be required. A document so general and toothless cannot ever suffice as final review. Each well stimulation project has its own site-specific hydrologic, seismic and geologic, air quality, community health, wildlife, and other concerns that demand and deserve specific consideration.

The release of California's Final EIR lands directly on the heels of New York State's completion of its environmental review process last week, which culminated in a ban on high volume fracking in that state. New York's process and findings couldn't be more different from California's. New York studied fracking for 7 years and concluded that: "the significant adverse public health and environmental impacts" from allowing fracking "cannot be adequately avoided or minimized." California studied fracking for just over 1 year and concluded for most impacts that they could be "reduced to a level of less than significant." California is usually a national leader in environmental matters, but in this case, our Golden State has stuck its head in the sand--ignoring upcoming science and rushing to finalize an incomplete EIR--while New York takes the lead.

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In sum, although we will continue our review in the upcoming weeks, our initial analysis strongly suggests that, by their very design, the permanent regulations and statewide Final EIR do not adequately protect Californians, our groundwater, our wild animals and places, our air, or our coastal resources from fracking. Yesterday, DOGGR squandered an opportunity and instead left communities and local governments on the front lines of fracking with little support to defend them. The urgency has never been greater and the time is now for local governments to protect their residents' health and our environment from this industrial activity.

(Photo credit: Sarah Craig/NRDC)

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Staff Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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