skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Amy Mall’s Blog

Protecting NEPA environmental review is essential to protect clean water from the risks of fracking

Amy Mall

Posted April 12, 2013

, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

The need to protect some of California’s rich agricultural land provides the latest example of how important NEPA is in safeguarding our nation’s natural resources. Last week a federal court ruled that  fracking proposals there need to look at the air and water impacts of fracking more thoroughly. This is just the latest powerful reminder of why "NEPA" is so important. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act. As we’ve blogged before, NEPA is an incredibly successful law that establishes a process to assess the environmental impacts of a proposed project through an analysis like an Environmental Impact Statement, thoroughly consider all costs and benefits, and maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms. Then it gives the public, including independent scientists, an opportunity to provide input.

NEPA is really reasonable. That is why decades ago it passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 372 to 15 and passed the Senate with no recorded dissent, and was signed in to law by President Nixon, a Californian and Republican.

Yet some folks are always trying to drag NEPA down. They blame it for all kinds of things, like delaying polluting projects. Keep in mind that NEPA sets up a process and ensures the public has information on what is planned, whether it is building a rail yard, logging a forest, or fracking for oil and gas—but it doesn’t dictate what projects should and should not be approved. Every year, NRDC fights in Congress to stop bills that would weaken NEPA.

There’s a 2013 version of the “Let’s weaken NEPA” effort. As NRDC President Frances Beinecke recently blogged, a bill being considered in the Senate to amend the Water Resources Development Act would shorten the time available for completing environmental review. This means that environmental agencies will not get the time they need to fully evaluate the environmental impacts of different projects and develop the best project, incorporating public input. The sponsor of this bill is Senator Barbara Boxer--usually an environmental champion and someone who has questioned the safety of BLM fracking policies.

Now, back to that California court case on fracking.

The Bureau of Land  Management (BLM) has been approving the newest type of fracking—in horizontal wells--around the country without the necessary environmental impacts analysis required by NEPA.

Fracking for oil or gas in horizontal wells is significantly different than old-school fracking, requiring more water consumption, truck traffic and emissions, socio-economic impacts, air pollution, generation of potentially toxic waste, and more. Unfortunately, the BLM is not analyzing these impacts, but is instead relying on NEPA analysis that was done for the older type of fracking to justify approving new fracking in horizontal wells. We are aware of this occurring in Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, California, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio.

If deadlines are shortened for NEPA review, as is proposed in this Senate bill, we would expect to see more of this shoddy NEPA review in projects around the country.

Yet last week a federal judge in California found that when the BLM allowed fracking without adequate NEPA review it violated the law.

The Court reminded us that “NEPA requires that BLM evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental effects of its actions.” The Court found that proper investigation was “crucial” due to the many unknown risks of fracking and the threats to important local drinking water resources. (For more information on the drinking water resources at risk in this particular case, see a prior blog post).

This decision should send a loud and clear message to the BLM around the country, from California to Alabama, that it should stop approving new fracking without thorough environmental review of all the impacts.

It is also a message to Senators who have proposed weakening NEPA for any type of project: NEPA is the public’s safety net for evaluating projects that can have significant environmental impacts. Any weakening of NEPA will also weaken the public’s ability to protect clean air and clean water and have a  say in federal actions.

Congratulations to the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club for their work on this important court decision.

Share | | |


Michael BerndtsonApr 12 2013 05:44 PM

From Oil Price on water flooding for enhanced shale oil:

"US Shale Industry Set for a Second Boom with Waterflood Technology"

Since conventional-unconventional oil recovery isn't really working out as hoped in oil rich deposits like the Bakken in North Dakota, O&G wants to water flood as an enhanced recovery method. This doesn't seem to be a good idea for seismically sensitive and dry California. Water flooding is essentially pushing, via immiscible displacement, oil from the rock pores and fissures under really high pressures. So existing wells may be used for either injection or collection purposes. Lots more water will be needed. Lots more mess.

I believe supplemental recovery is not part of the initial construction and operations permit - since it is done optionally and done around 5 years or so upon start up. So it may not be discussed or disclosed, unless asked.

Environmental EngineerApr 13 2013 12:20 PM

NEPA is a good thing. Ice Cream is a good thing (in my opinion). But too much of either can be damaging.
Should projects be delayed for decades, simply by the permitting process? Even environmentally attractive ones. where the underlying source of conflict seems to be that rich people live nearby, and they can afford lawyers to obstruct the project.

I didn't work on that project, but I am personally familiar with a different alternative energy project that was threatened with delays in obtaining environmental permits unless union labor was to be used in the construction. Threatened lawsuits challenging the adequacy of environmental review would cease if the developer agreed to a union shop. I've got nothing against unions, but is that an appropriate use of NEPA and similar regulatory programs? No environmental benefit at all. Just like ice cream, there need to be some limits. Everybody deserves a day in court. But not decades of days in court.

Michael, as you may know, waterflood operations typically use the produced water that is brought up in the oil wells. It's salty and hard to otherwise properly dispose. It is useable for reintroduction into the oil-bearing formation after the oil is separated from it, and is usually the cheapest source of readily available water. During primary oil production from a new well, the produced fluid has a high percentage of oil and a low percentage of water -- maybe 95 percent oil, 5 percent water. Waterflooding is unnecessary at that time. As the well ages, the percentages gradually switch. I'm aware of still-operating wells that produce only 3 percent oil. They have a LOT of water to dispose, and it all goes back into the same formations it was extracted from, in a waterflood operation. That particular waterflood system includes hundreds of extraction and injection wells that spread out over approximately 20 square miles. Pressure in the oil-bearing formations drops as oil and water are extracted. That can cause ground subsidence and other issues. Injection of water back into the oil-bearing formation is a method of keeping the pressure more constant, which reduces the potential stresses and strains of changes in pressure.

And if "oil recovery isn't really working out as hoped for" then they will stop doing it. Since they continue to pursue the activity in these and other regions, I'll bet they think it is working out.

Michael BerndtsonApr 15 2013 12:49 PM

Environmental Engineer,
You may want to apply the trade of your alias in the US rather than simply promoting oil and gas. Here's an interesting article on Statoil plans for the Bakken. In short, Statoil is exploiting Bakken because of lax US environmental regulation for oil and gas development and production. The issue at this point is flaring. Meaning flaring is taxed in Norway not the US so Statoil doesn't capture natural gas in the US, since they don't have to. Statoil is also a big user of enhanced methods like CO2 and water flooding. I'm sure with little to no regulations on oil and gas here in the states on groundwater protection and surface water management, they will take advantage of that as well.

The article from Petroleum News titled: "Long-term player: Statoil looks at its Bakken assets from a slightly different perspective," by Mike Ellerd, for Petroleum News Bakken

the following copied from the article:

Flaring and gas infrastructure

Like everyone else in the Williston Basin, Statoil is working to reduce flaring.
“From a Norwegian perspective, you’re not allowed to flare — you’ll be taxed,” Bull says. “There was a CO2 and flaring tax put in on the Norwegian continental shelf decades ago, and it’s influenced the business that we have in Statoil.”

Bull says that Statoil knows flaring is an important issue in North Dakota, and that the key to flaring is to have the pipeline systems and processing capacity, but that, he notes, is the problem in the Williston Basin because the basin is still in the early stages of development. However, he is optimistic that the infrastructure will be built.

“We think over the next few years it will be a better situation. We’ll see a lot more infrastructure and a lot more money put in the ground from Oneok and other partners as well.”

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Amy Mall’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In