An environmental group that was already suing the state for allegedly “rubberstamping” oil-drilling permits is now challenging the recent approval of 15 wells in Long Beach.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit May 11 that seeks to rescind approval of the Long Beach wells, which are in the harbor on the oil island Grissom, and of six wells in San Luis Obispo County northeast of Pismo Beach.
The center’s suit against California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, alleges the agency didn’t offer any chance for public comment before granting the well permits, and that it based its approvals on outdated environmental reviews that don’t adequately address the known harms of oil operations, including air and water pollution and emission of greenhouse gasses.
In addition to those concerns, the suit notes that the Long Beach wells could run afoul of a new state law that would prohibit new oil operations within 3,200 feet of sensitive sites such as schools and parks. (The law is on hold until voters decide on a referendum in 2024.)
CalGEM issued the permits in December and drilling hasn’t yet started, said Liz Jones, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The goal is definitely to invalidate or have the court tell the agency it needs to rescind these permits so they don’t move forward,” she said.
CalGEM spokesperson Jacob Roper said in an email that the agency would not comment on the suit.
The companies that received the permits are named as having an interest in the lawsuit but not as defendants.
California Resources Corporation, whose subsidiary holds the Long Beach well permits, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
In an email, Daniel Taimuty, environmental health and safety manager for Sentinel Peak Resources (holder of the San Luis Obispo County permits), disputed the lawsuit’s characterization of the review process and said the suit is “not only meritless, but also a prime example of (California Environmental Quality Act) abuse.”
According to the lawsuit, the state’s basis for approval of the Long Beach wells was “an expired 50-year-old study that doesn’t evaluate climate change or the risks to human health that have become well understood since that time,” a news release from the Center for Biological Diversity said.
The study at issue is an environmental impact statement the city of Long Beach did in 1973. The center says a study used to sign off on the San Luis Obispo County wells was done in 2004.
Long Beach Director of Energy Resources Bob Dowell said Friday that most of the wells drilled now in the city are “redrills” of existing ones rather than new wells.
The city hasn’t done an environmental review of the Wilmington oil field (part of which lies under the city and Port of Long Beach) since 1973, Dowell said, but it doesn’t need to. The field “has been developed, maintained and operated consistent with the project description” in the original study, he said, and as long as oil field operations don’t change, “we are still covered by our current exemption” to CEQA.
Now it will be up to a judge to decide. The Center for Biological Diversity is also more broadly challenging CalGEM’s approval practices—a pending lawsuit it filed in Alameda County in 2021 charges that the state has followed a pattern of granting well drilling permits without adequate environmental review.
Separately, the city is under pressure from the State Lands Commission to revise its plan for future oil production to better account for things like health hazards to communities, sea level rise and the volatile oil market.
City leaders have pledged to phase out oil production by 2035, but Long Beach remains dependent on oil revenue, which pumps millions into the city coffers each year—and the oil production plan anticipates increasing oil production in the near term.
If the law requiring buffer zones between oil operations and sensitive sites goes into effect, city officials have said oil revenue could shrink by $20 million or more annually.