Environmentalists Sue Feds to Block Oil Project in Carrizo Plain National Monument

The Carrizo Plain National Monument. (Photo via Antandrus / Wikipedia)

(CN) — Southern California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to spectacular pastel super blooms, ancient pictograph rock art, and, if the Trump administration has its way, a soon-to-be oil well and pipeline.

Environmental advocates sued the federal government on Tuesday to block the project that has had an on-again, off-again status over the last several years and, if approved, would cut through the near-pristine Carrizo Plain.

In their 24-page complaint, the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forestwatch claim the federal government is blazing forward on the project without fully analyzing the environmental effects a pipeline would have on the region.

It isn’t the first time the weathered plain has been the focus of a federal agency.

The national monument site was established in 2001 during the Clinton administration and is the single largest native grassland region in California, untouched by the voracious agriculture industry found in San Luis Obispo County.

Previous oil operations have come and gone without ever hitting the motherlode on the plain.

In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a preliminary environmental report for a new oil drilling permit, but just four years later the federal agency determined the site would be abandoned and the surrounding area restored to its natural conditions.

But under the Trump administration, the federal agency reversed course again and issued its decision to approve the well and pipeline. And in May 2020, the Trump administration announced it would resume plans to open the plain to oil drilling.

“I find this action to be in conformance with applicable land use plans, that it effectively serves the public, and that it will not cause unnecessary or undue degradation,” BLM Field Manager Gabriel Garcia said in the agency’s decision of record

But that decision was based on information from the 2012 preliminary report with some updates, according to the complaint filed by the environmental advocates in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The complaint alleges the preliminary report “failed to analyze many of the significant environmental impacts of drilling and operating a new well within the monument,” and the federal agency “glossed over” the project’s impact to threatened, endangered and sensitive species. The monument is home to the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat, the California condor and many more organisms that would be impacted by the pipeline.

The plaintiffs also claim greenhouse gas emissions are understated in the government’s preliminary report and the entire project flies in the face of the agency’s plan to minimize impacts to wildlife and other resources.

E&B Natural Resources Management Corp., which is not a party to the suit, wants to construct a pipeline on federal lands in the Russell Ranch Oil Field that’s located in the San Luis Obispo County portion of the monument. Environmental advocates say this would violate the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Senior scientist Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity said it’s “appalling that it takes a lawsuit” to protect national monuments.

“The Trump administration has flouted the law to appease polluting industries, decimate public lands and worsen the climate crisis. Thankfully this disastrous fracking frenzy is almost over,” Anderson said in a statement, referring to the incoming Biden administration.

The monument has not seen much oil activity in recent years.

In 2013, the Bureau of Land Management notified E&B that a dozen wells at the site were idle for more than 25 years and would need to be abandoned or brought back to production status. Within two years of that notification, the oil company said it would move ahead with plugging the wells.

However, according to the complaint several of the wells are currently “idle.”

“Of the twelve long-term idle wells in the Carrizo Plain National Monument identified by BLM in its September 2013 letter to E&B, 10 of the wells remain ‘Idle’ with no indication of when the wells will be returned to production or plugged and abandoned,” the complaint states. “Eight of those 10 wells have been idle for over forty years, and a ninth has been idle for 38 years.”

The environmental advocacy groups argue the federal government should move ahead with the abandonment plan that was previously set-in motion.

The Bureau of Land Management did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

“Today’s lawsuit asks the Bureau to do what its own management plan requires it to do: Phase out oil drilling in the Carrizo Plain National Monument and clean up the mess that has been left behind,” ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper said in a statement. 

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