Oil giants sell thousands of California wells, raising worries about future liability.
By David Cay Johnston, David E. Rosenbaum
In February 2011, as a storm was brewing, one of the most unusual environmental lawsuits you ever want to know about was filed a few miles away from San Francisco’s bay. A consortium of energy companies accused the state of illegally permitting wells to be drilled in the San Pablo Bay watershed, which straddles the state’s two largest estuaries, south of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the water off the Marin County coast.
The lawsuit alleged that from January 1, 2000 to February 15, 2010, the states of California and Oregon violated the federal Clean Water Act by approving hundreds of new drilling permits. The plaintiffs claimed that the Bay Area had become a “dead zone” for endangered and invasive species — especially the federally protected sturgeon, whose habitat was destroyed.
The lawsuit, which was consolidated with a similar case in Oregon, was filed on behalf of the Bay Area Fish and Game Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board under California’s U.S. Constitution and the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. The two state entities were sued along with three of their regional water districts. The regional water districts include the City of Oakland, Marin County and San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Among other claims, they were accused of violating the state’s Water Code by allowing large water diversions to fill up water wells without the state receiving a public notice and hearing.
And it wasn’t the first time, either.
In the last century, the energy companies have drilled over 12,000 oil and gas wells in the United States and Canada, according to the Energy Information Administration. Many of those wells are in California, where oil and gas reserves are estimated to be worth more than $1.5 trillion.
In fact, an analysis by the Center for Data Analysis, an Oakland-based environmental group, found that from January 1, 2000 to February 15, 2010, the United States and Canada accounted for 85 percent of the oil and gas wells drilled in the U.S. — and 76 percent were in California and Oregon. More recent data show well-drilling activity in the Pacific Northwest has declined significantly over the last decade,