Feds Accused of Holding Back on California Fracking Plans

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SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Armed with a recent court ruling that climate change must be considered in decisions to open federal land to oil and gas drilling, conservationists shot the opening volley Thursday in what promises to be a protracted legal battle over the future of fracking and oil drilling in Northern California.

The federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity accuses the Trump administration of withholding environmental review records on its plans to end a six-year moratorium on leasing federal land to oil and gas companies in California.

“The Trump administration is plotting behind closed doors to turn over some of California’s most precious wild places to dangerous drilling and fracking,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the center, in a statement Thursday.

The suit was filed a mere eight days after a federal judge blocked oil and gas leases in Wyoming for failure to consider climate change.

Environmentalists seek records that will reveal precisely what factors the Bureau of Land Management is considering in its ongoing environmental review of proposals to open up to 793,000 acres in 11 California counties to fossil fuel extraction.

“We want to know what they’re looking at and who they’re talking to when they make decisions that will affect Californians,” Lakewood said in a phone interview.

The renewed leasing program would end a six-year ban on federal oil and gas leases in California. That moratorium took effect in 2013 after a federal judge ruled the Bureau of Land Management violated the law by failing to consider the environmental risks of fracking when it issued oil leases in Monterey County.

Since then, Monterey County and San Benito County voters passed ballot measures to ban fracking, and Santa Cruz County passed an ordinance also forbidding the practice.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting liquid underground at high pressure to open fissures for oil and gas extraction.

The state of California permits fracking on state land, with the controversial technique being used in 10 California counties and offshore. The highest occurrence of fracking takes place in Kern County, the largest oil producer in the state.

The 11 counties where federal oil and gas leases could be issued under a new Bureau of Land Management program include Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Merced, Monterey, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Stanislaus.

In 2015, an independent study raised alarms about the impact of fracking in California and reported that some 316 chemical additives were often injected at shallow depths that can taint drinking water. The report also called for more study on health impacts of using fracking wastewater to irrigate crops. The assessment was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, an independent nonprofit established by the state Legislature in 1988.

Despite concerns raised about the impacts of oil and gas drilling on drinking water and climate change, the Trump administration has touted its commitment to expanding fossil fuel production as a boon to the nation’s economy and energy independence.

Speaking at an oil and gas industry meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on March 8, Vice President Mike Pence extolled the benefits of boosting oil and gas production. He noted the industry supports some 200,000 jobs in Ohio with average salaries of over $88,000 per year.

“Energy is growing this economy,” Pence said. “It’s making America stronger, and it’s strengthening the foundation under families here in Ohio and all across this nation.”

Nevertheless, Lakewood of the Center for Biological Diversity insists any short-term economic benefits are outweighed by the long-term environmental consequences. She further contended that renewable energy is a cheaper and more sustainable power source compared to oil and gas.

“We know that renewable energy is more affordable than ever,” Lakewood said. “We are looking down the barrel at climate chaos, and the only thing that we know can prevent that is phasing out fossil fuels.”

Lakewood said that’s why her organization is suing the Trump administration for records: to find out if it has fully considered the impacts of its proposal to permit oil and gas drilling on federal lands in California.

The center submitted its Freedom of Information Act request in August 2018 and received zero responses from the Bureau of Land Management, despite multiple follow-up requests, according to its complaint.

Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Sarah Webster said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but she insisted the agency takes its compliance with environmental and public records laws seriously.

The agency “will release all relevant records as soon as our workload allows as we do with our administrative actions and decisions,” Webster said.

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