The federal government has agreed to stop approving oil fracking off the California coast until it studies whether the practice is safe for the environment, according to legal settlements filed Friday.
Separate deals reached with a pair of environmental organizations require the Department of the Interior to review whether well techniques such as using acid or hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, to stimulate offshore well production threatens water quality and marine life.
The practices have been conducted for years in federal waters and were revealed when the Environmental Defense Center filed Freedom of Information Act requests, the organization said.
"These practices are currently being conducted under decades-old plans with out-of-date or nonexistent environmental analysis," said Brian Segee, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center.
The agreements in Los Angeles federal court apply to operations off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. operate platforms.
Federal agencies will have to complete the review by the end of May and determine if a more in-depth analysis is necessary. They will also have to make future permit applications publicly accessible.
An Interior Department spokeswoman said the agency would comply with the agreement and is committed to safe offshore operations.
The American Petroleum Institute, which intervened in the cases as a defendant and did not agree to the settlement, issued a statement saying it did not think the environmental review was needed and did not think a permit moratorium was justified.
The Environmental Defense Center challenged 53 permits authorizing well stimulation at six offshore platforms. The group said use of chemicals such as acid to break up and dissolve rock poses risks at every stage of operation up through and including their discharge in the ocean.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a separate lawsuit, said the government had rubber stamped permits without public input or analysis of the threat posed to creatures such as sea otters, fish and whales.
"Offshore fracking is a dirty and dangerous practice that has absolutely no place in our ocean," said attorney Kristen Monsell. "The federal government certainly has no right to give the oil industry free rein to frack offshore at will."