SAN FRANCISCO - Environmental groups are suing California regulators over accusations that they aren't adequately policing the use of horizontal drilling techniques called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in California's oil fields.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in state Superior Court in Alameda, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and other groups accused the state Department of Conservation's oil-regulating division of approving oil and natural gas drilling permits without first requiring adequate environmental reviews.
The groups argued that fracking, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressure, can permanently damage water quality, air quality, wildlife and recreation.
The lawsuit is the latest sign of conflict between oil and gas producers that increasingly have been using fracking techniques to produce oil across the U.S. and environmental groups, who are concerned that the techniques could permanently contaminate underground freshwater resources. The fight over fracking has been most intense in Pennsylvania and New York state, where producers have found new oil and gas reserves in underground rock formations. Now, the fracking debate has expanded to California, where oilfields produce roughly one-third of the state's supply.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management last year over its sale of an oil lease in California that the group argued hadn't been adequately reviewed for potential harm to the environment. The group plans to file a broader fracking lawsuit against the federal agency over accusations that it isn't properly evaluating potentially harmful effects of fracking on endangered species in California.
"We're challenging [the BLM's] inadequate environmental review before selling off the lands for oil and gas development and fracking," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday is the first to challenge California's regulation of fracking on state lands, said Earthjustice attorney George Torgun.
"The lawsuit is about [making] the state follow existing environmental law and just getting basic information to the public about what projects are being proposed, what potential impacts there are and making sure those impacts are mitigated," Mr. Torgun said in an interview.
The environmental groups asked the court to require state regulators to beef up their oversight of fracking and to require oil and gas producers to disclose the chemicals they use.
A spokesman for the Department of Conservation said officials were still reviewing the complaint and could not yet comment on it.
Concerns in California about potential environmental effects of fracking emerged in proposed legislation earlier this year. Those proposals failed to garner enough votes to pass the state legislature. However, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which oversees oil and gas production, said it would draft new rules that would better regulate fracking.
The division has been working on the regulations and plans to release a first draft in the next several weeks, said division spokesman Don Drysdale.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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