Judge Strikes Down Plan to Open One Million Acres of California Public Lands to Drilling

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San Ardo oil field drilling infrastructure.

On September 6, a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles issued a ruling overturning a federal plan to open vast tracts of public land in central California to oil and gas drilling, which includes hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had failed to analyze the risks of fracking and other extreme oil and gas extraction techniques when preparing a resource management plan that would have allowed drilling on more than one million acres of land in California’s Central Valley, the southern Sierra Nevada, and in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties.

Fracking raises a number of environmental concerns, including risks of groundwater contamination, seismicity, and chemical leaks,” Fitzgerald wrote in the ruling. He also cited potential threats to endangered wildlife and concluded that the BLM’s environmental impact statement (EIS) was “inadequate.”

“The Bureau is therefore obligated to prepare a supplemental EIS to analyze the environmental consequences flowing from the use of hydraulic fracturing,” Fitzgerald wrote.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Los Padres ForestWatch, which were quick to applaud Judge Fitzgerald's decision.

“This is a huge victory in the fight to protect our water and wildlife from fracking pollution and dangerous drilling,” Brendan Cummings, CBD’s conservation director, said in a statement. “The Obama administration must get the message and end this reckless rush to auction off our public land to oil companies. As California struggles against drought and climate change, we’ve got to end fracking and leave this dirty oil in the ground.”

BLM officials estimated that oil companies would be using hydraulic fracturing on 25 percent of new wells drilled on the public lands in question. The 1,073-page management plan they prepared, however, contained just three mentions of fracking. Furthermore, it lacked any deeper analysis of the threats which the controversial drilling technique poses to the environment and public health as it blasts huge amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals underground to release oil and gas.

Another consideration, which did not factor into Judge Fitzgerald's decision, is just where the oilfield wastewater would be disposed, should these lands be opened to drilling. The CBD found that, between April 2015 and March 2016, 39 percent of new drill permits issued for wastewater disposal wells were for drill sites within five miles of a fault line. Regulators with California's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) were the officials behind these permits. 

DOGGR officials have been embroiled in controversy ever since it was revealed last year that they had improperly permitted oil companies to dump toxic waste into protected underground aquifers via thousands of wastewater injection wells, violating both federal and state laws. DOGGR has said it plans to seek exemptions for as many as 60 of those aquifers. In February, DOGGR filed the first application for exemption with the Environmental Protection Agency; the CBD filed suit last month to stop the exemption process from moving forward.

In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the BLM had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it failed to consider the risks of fracking when issuing oil leases in Monterey County, California. Since then, the BLM has halted all lease sales in Monterey County as it completes an environmental review of fracking's risks for that county. A similar outcome is expected following this week’s decision, according to the CBD.

“A management plan for BLM land in central California that doesn’t address fracking is like an emergency plan for San Francisco that doesn’t address earthquakes,” Greg Loarie of Earthjustice, which represented the CBD and Los Padres ForestWatch in the suit, said in a statement. “BLM can’t just ignore the most important environmental issue on their plate.”

Judge Fitzgerald notes in his decision that the public lands BLM was proposing to open to drilling contain “extraordinary biodiversity” and “numerous groundwater systems that contribute to the annual water supply used by neighboring areas for agricultural and urban purposes.” In fact, of the 130 federally protected animal species classified as threatened or endangered in California, more than one-third can be found in or around the areas under consideration for drilling and fracking, according to the CBD.

“This ruling will protect public lands from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the Central Coast from an influx of oil development and fracking,” ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper said in a statement. “These treasured landscapes provide many benefits to our local communities and are too valuable to sacrifice for a few days’ supply of oil.”

Main image: The San Ardo Oil Field in Monterey County, California. Credit: Loco SteveCC BY 2.0.

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