On Friday, November 6, three environmental organizations filed suit against the City of Los Angeles in California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles. The three groups, Youth for Environmental Justice, the Center for Biological Diversity and the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, allege that the “City of Los Angeles has for years employed a pattern or practice of rubber stamping oil-drilling applications in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).” Verified Complaint and Petition for Writ of Mandate, at 2. By categorically exempting oil-drilling projects from CEQA, the Complaint states that L.A. has permitted a disproportionately high number of drilling operations in low-income communities and neighborhoods where people of color reside. According to the environmental groups, this is a racially discriminatory practice because the City of L.A. exhibits a pattern of “developing and approving weaker conditions for drill sites in communities where a vast majority of the residents identify as Latino and black.” Id. at 26.

The Complaint focuses especially on the risks of drilling operations on children. “Because  they breathe at a higher rate, and drink more water and consume more food in proportion to their body size, children receive higher doses of toxins and contaminants than adults.” Id. at 12-13. Further, in contrast to the public outcry over fracking, the environmental groups note that the emissions from oil and gas development in L.A. are associated with “traditional drilling,” not necessarily hydraulic fracturing. The Complaint also addresses the alleged risks of acidizing and gravel packing techniques, though.

Among other requests in their Complaint, the environmental groups ask for a “court-established medical monitoring program solely for the purposes of diagnosing disease and sharing information” and injunctive relief to prohibit the City of L.A. from issuing approvals for existing and new oil-extraction operations that rely on categorical exemptions from CEQA. Id. at 40-41. Although oil industry representatives have not issued an official statement, California Independent Petroleum Association spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart, notes that California’s oil production has the “toughest protections in the nation.”

This lawsuit is important because it shows the lengths to which CEQA is being stretched to challenge the oil and gas industry in California. Should cities address the issue of environmental justice when issuing permits as part of its CEQA analysis? The CEQA Guidelines specifically state that “[e]conomic or social effects of a project shall not be treated as significant effects on the environment.” Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 15131(a). According to Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis School of Law, if the lawsuit succeeds, it could set an important precedent for other parts of California where oil and gas drilling is expanding with new extraction techniques.

By Mike Mills (michael.mills@stoel.com) and Shannon Morrissey. Ms. Morrissey is not currently licensed to practice law, and is awaiting admittance to practice law in California.