New oil and gas leases on federal land in San Luis Obispo County and other parts of California are suspended as the United States Bureau of Land Management reevaluates the environmental impacts of those activities.
The BLM is required to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement for proposed new leases for oil and gas drilling after reaching a July 31 settlement agreement with the California Department of Justice and several environmental organizations.
The settlement agreement grew out of a lawsuit filed by state and environmental organizations after the BLM discovered in 2019 that its proposed oil and gas drilling leases for its Bakersfield field office area could go ahead. . The jurisdiction of that office includes the areas of the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Kern, Kings, Ventura, Tulare, Fresno, and Madeira.
The office has proposed opening approximately 400,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mining properties for oil and gas leasing.
Areas that have been proposed to be open for oil and gas drilling in San Luis Obispo County include Hearst Ranch, Montaña de Oro State Park, above the Reservoir Canyon in San Luis Obispo, above the Whale Rock Reservoir and around to Lake Santa Margarita, Lake Lopez and Lake Nacimiento. Oil and gas drilling activities could include fracking or hydraulic fracturing, which breaks open rocks with water and chemicals to extract oil or gas.
Based on the further environmental analysis required by the settlement agreement, the BLM can modify its management plan which governs where and how oil and gas drilling can take place.
The BLM declined to comment on the settlement agreement.
The settlement agreement only suspends the oil and gas leasing activities outlined by BLM in its management plan. Other leasing activities, including mining, cattle grazing, and recreational opportunities may continue.
State, environmental groups say the settlement is a necessary climate action
Environmental groups and California released statements on August 1 to celebrate the settlement.
“These agreements require federal officials to disclose the damage fracking does to the air, water and communities of central California,” said Liz Jones, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “For decades, the people and wildlife of this region have paid the price for filthy fossil fuel extraction. This has to stop and we will do everything we can to make sure these breaks become permanent bans. “
The groups also expressed hope that further environmental review could lead to a management plan for the Bakersfield Field Office area with stricter standards to protect the environment and public health.
And the lawsuit and settlement are consistent with the Newsom administration’s efforts to move California away from fossil fuel mining. The governor last year ordered state agencies to ban fracking by 2024 and completely eliminate oil drilling by 2045.
“Fracking is dangerous to our communities, it’s harmful to our environment, and it’s out of step with California’s climate goals,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who also commented on behalf of Governor Newsom, of the California Air Resources Board, of the California Department of California. Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Water Resources. “The Trump administration has recklessly opened up central California to new oil and gas drilling without considering how fracking can harm communities by causing polluted groundwater, toxic emissions to the air, minor earthquakes, climate impacts and more. In line with the Bureau of Land Management’s mission to preserve the health of our public lands must reevaluate this Trump-era mistake. “
Will BLM find different conclusions from previous environmental reviews?
This is the second time that BLM has been obligated under a settlement agreement to reassess the environmental impacts of its oil and gas lease proposal.
In 2014, the BLM first approved a massive resource management plan for its Bakersfield field office, which outlined how the agency planned to lease and manage the land and mining property under its jurisdiction. That plan indicated the availability of 400,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mining properties for oil and gas leasing.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2015 contesting the environmental review for that 2014 plan and claimed to have violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court then issued a summary judgment in that case in 2016, finding that the environmental review at the time did not “thoroughly” examine the environmental impacts of fracking, according to court records. Therefore, the BLM was required to conduct an additional environmental impact statement.
That supplemental environmental impact statement, released in 2019, found overall that the oil and gas lease originally proposed by the BLM could go ahead, something the California Department of Justice and environmental groups contested in their lawsuit filed in January. 2020.
The settlement agreement requiring the BLM to reassess the environmental impacts of its oil and gas lease proposal was reached on July 31 and the lawsuit was dismissed on August 1.
“Fracking on public California land in the midst of our climate crisis and drought has always been a rather dubious idea and was totally unacceptable without proper environmental review,” said Ann Alexander, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement on August 1st. “It is imperative that the BLM take the time to assess what it would be like to open these lands to drilling for local communities, who are already living with severe water shortages and the worst air in the country.”
Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, said he hopes the BLM this time “will carry out a deeper analysis” which is based on “the best science and listens to the thousands of Central Coast residents who want to see their neighborhoods. schools and open spaces protected by oil development and fracking “.
“This would be consistent with President Biden’s pledge to end federal leasing of fossil fuels on public land and underline the urgency of the climate crisis we are currently facing,” he told The Tribune. “Two separate judges have criticized the environmental analysis of further drilling and fracking on public land, so maybe the third time will be the charm. If not, we will review them in court to protect our communities and our climate ”.