In a surprisingly green verdict this Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court swerved past the fossil fuel industry’s appeal against the 2018 ban on offshore fracking in federal waters off California’s coast. Environmentalists and coastal conservationists are celebrating this move, as they have long voiced concerns about the serious environmental and climate risks linked to extracting oil and gas from beneath the ocean floor.
The Supreme Court’s decision solidifies a June 2022 verdict from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which proclaimed that federal regulators had failed to respect the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. These regulators greenlit fracking and acidizing on drilling platforms off California’s coast without adequately investigating the potential harm to marine life.
In an attempt to revive oil and gas wells off California’s coast using fracking and acidizing—two hotly debated extraction techniques that exploit the remaining reserves from mature undersea wells—the fossil fuel companies and the American Petroleum Institute approached the Supreme Court in January for a case review. This appeal was declined, along with several others, on Monday.
Despite the Supreme Court’s right-leaning majority and its history of tearing down federal clean air and water protections to please conservative ideologues and polluters, it also tends to lean towards high-profile cases with nationwide implications. Perhaps this explains why a tussle over offshore oil and gas in California didn’t quite make the cut.
As a result, the ban on fracking in federal waters off California’s coast remains in place, at least for the time being. The Ninth Circuit’s decision last year reinforced a lower court ruling that barred new fracking permits for federally leased wells until Interior Department regulators complete a thorough environmental review that takes into consideration climate-friendly alternatives.
Kristen Monsell, the oceans program litigation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, lauded the fracking ban, saying it will “help prevent more toxic chemicals from poisoning fish, sea otters, and other marine life.” She added, however, “Our ocean won’t be truly protected until offshore drilling stops once and for all.”
Since 2014, disputes over offshore fracking have tangled their way through California courts, spurred by federal records requests that unveiled offshore fracking details for the first time. Despite being smaller in scale than onshore fracking, offshore fracking and acidizing introduce harmful chemicals into marine environments, generating billions of gallons of wastewater that end up in our oceans.
Upon the discovery that fracking was taking place within a vibrant sanctuary for whales, fish, and sea otters in the Santa Barbara Channel, public outcry quickly escalated, prompting legal action. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that these “enhanced” extraction techniques needed a full impact review under federal environmental laws.
The ongoing battle in California has also drawn attention to the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore fracking and the dumping of chemical-laced wastewater is a regular occurrence, albeit loosely regulated compared to California.
Environmentalists in California see the Supreme Court’s decision to sidestep the debate over the environmental impacts of undersea fracking and acidizing as a step toward ending offshore drilling altogether.
“We hope this is the beginning of the end of drilling off California’s coast,” said Monsell, highlighting the optimism that this decision has sparked among environmentalists. One thing’s for certain: it’s a significant victory for our oceans, our climate, and ultimately, our future.