A lawsuit filed Monday in Fresno challenges the Trump administration’s last-minute leasing of federal land in California for oil and gas development.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif (CN) — A new lawsuit brought by environmental groups against the Bureau of Land Management seeks to rescind leases for seven parcels of federal land auctioned to energy companies in the waning days of the Trump administration.
They are the first federal land oil and gas leases of their kind to be sold in nearly a decade and would open vast tracts to oil exploration and fracking. The land in question sits in California’s Central Valley, an agricultural region that already experiences some of the worst air and water quality in the country.
The groups also claim the leases will threaten endangered species in the area, including the San Joaquin kit fox and the California condor.
“This lease sale was a last, lawless giveaway from Trump to fossil fuel companies,” said Clare Lakewood, legal director at the Center For Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, which is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. “Our public lands are meant for public benefit, not to churn out air pollution and greenhouse gases that harm us all. The Biden administration needs to reverse these rushed, reckless industry handouts.”
The first parcels of land being opened to oil and gas drilling sit in Kern County, a region with a long history of oil and gas exploration. Much of the region’s countryside is already pock-marked with long-abandoned wells that environmentalists claim continue to degrade local air and water quality.
The other parcels are spread across eight California countries between the southern Central Coast and Central Valley regions.
“Kern County already suffers some of the worst air pollution in the country, while producing some of the dirtiest and most damaging oil in the world for people’s health and climate,” Lakewood said. “The residents of Kern deserve better.”
Opponents of the leases say the Bureau of Land Management rushed through an Environmental Impact Review to approve the oil and gas leases because of former President Donald Trump’s desire to pay off his supporters with lucrative contracts such as these. Trump long promised to open up federal lands for oil and gas exploration, and these leases appear to be a last-ditch effort to make good on that.
“The Trump administration insisted on ramming through this lease sale, even as it knew that the underlying environmental analysis the sale relied on was being challenged in court,” Lakewood added. “In its eagerness to sell off our public lands to fossil fuel companies, the Trump EPA failed to look at the harms this oil and gas development will cause to our air, climate and water, and the health risks it poses to communities in the area that already suffer an unfair pollution burden.”
The environmental groups claim the bureau ignored nearly 35,000 written complaints and drastically undercounted the number of wells likely to be fracked. The groups also worry about the toll fracking will take on local groundwater resources — a valuable commodity already in short supply throughout the Central Valley.
Plaintiffs in the case say Kern County has a significant population of minorities and low-income families that will be heavily impacted by the proposed oil and gas leases. The San Joaquin Valley counties where leases have been sold already have the highest asthma rates for children in the State of California.
“BLM has skirted proper environmental review of this sale at every step; we want them to do a proper review,” said Michelle Ghafar, attorney from environmental law group Earthjustice, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs in this case. “Moreover, we know that now is definitely not the time to be authorizing new fossil fuel developments in the state. The state has been suffering through drought and air quality problems, especially in Kern County, so expanding fossil fuel development right now is inappropriate.”
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Fresno. A BLM spokesperson declined to comment.