Obama-era fracking regulations had been tied up in court until Washington nixed them in December.
Note: This post was updated to include an oil-industry comment.
California’s government started the new year much as it ended the last one: by filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration. This time, the state hit back against Washington’s decision last month to repeal Obama-era regulations governing hydraulic fracturing.
The rules would have required companies drilling on federal land to disclose the chemicals used during the fracking process, in which water and chemicals are pumped underground under high pressure to break oil deposits loose.
The process has been used in oil fields for decades, to establish new wells and revitalize existing ones. But the tremendous pressure applied by operators today is blamed for low-level seismic activity and for cracking open subterranean rock that protects aquifers, potentially fouling water supplies.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the lawsuit today—the 26th time California has taken the Trump administration to court.
“The risk of fracking to our health and to our environment are real, they are known,” Becerra said at a press conference. He added that the administration gave no legal justification for abandoning the regulations, which were arrived at after years of scientific analysis.
California, Becerra said, was taking the action as a stand against “federal overreach and to insist that the rule of law be followed by everyone, including the occupant of the White House.”
Most of the oil development in California occurs on federal land, operating under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees nearly 16 million acres in the state and operates a federal leasing program.
The rules established by the federal bureau were supposed to take effect in 2015 but were blocked by legal challenges. The agency quietly dropped them last month.
In 2015, California adopted strict fracking rules for oil operations on state land, also requiring comprehensive disclosure of chemicals used in the process. The state released an environmental impact report concluding that fracking could have “significant and unavoidable impacts” on a number of fronts, including water and air quality, greenhouse-gas emissions and public safety.
The state regulations also require oil companies to expand monitoring and reporting of water use and water quality at or near fracking sites and conduct broad analysis of potential engineering and seismic effects of their operations.
The California Council on Science and Technology, a group of scientists who advise the state, issued a 2015 report that found the hazards associated with about two-thirds of the additives used in fracking are not clear. The toxicity of more than half of those additives, the report said, remains “uninvestigated, unmeasured and unknown. Basic information about how these chemicals would move through the environment does not exist.”
Oil companies dispute that fracking is dangerous and say operators are fully complying with state laws.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and will closely monitor its outcome,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, “as it could have broad impacts on the exploration and production of oil and petroleum products.”