SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to open federal lands for oil and gas exploration in California led to a lawsuit by conservationists against the Bureau of Land Management — a fight that ended in settlement over the weekend.
Seven parcels of federal land were auctioned off to energy companies, ranging from California's Central Coast to the agricultural heart of the state- the Central Valley. The first leases for oil and gas drilling were sold in Kern County, an area already littered with active and abandoned wells.
The conservation groups claimed the Bureau of Land Management ignored 35,000 written complaints, underestimated the number of wells to be fracked and blew past environmental impact surveys to seal the leases. They also touted the potential for contamination of groundwater in the area.
The conservationists note that Kern County already has a large low-income population who the exploration would unfairly impact. In places where leases are already sold in the San Joaquin Valley, children have the highest asthma rates in the state. Some adverse effects of living near oil and gas sites include cardiovascular disease and low birth weight at 80% higher rates than the rest of California.
“The bureau has repeatedly authorized oil and gas development in Central California without taking a hard look at the severe consequences to local communities or the environment,” said Michelle Ghafar, senior attorney with Earthjustice. “The agency must stop and fully evaluate the community and environmental impacts of all the oil and gas expansion it is authorizing on public land in order to comply with the law.”
The agreement requires BLM to revoke the leases, file supplemental environmental impact reports that comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, defer any outstanding applications to drill on the leased land, and hold a public comment meeting. To ensure that communities on these plots can partake in the public forum and stay informed, the meeting(s) must have a Spanish translator present and a transcript available afterward. Spanish-translated documents, press releases, PowerPoints and other materials are also required.
“This is a win not only for the environment and climate, but for the people who call Kern County home,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “It is a disgrace that the federal government attempted to greenlight these leases without fully analyzing impacts on communities living nearby. Our victory has also worked to secure Spanish translation of pertinent documents, and live translation at public hearings, so that all stakeholders can truly have a seat at the table.”
On the same day, the Bureau of Land Management settled a similar case brought by Governor Gavin Newsom and environmentalist groups in January 2020. Other than a long, outlined history of BLM's NEPA violations, the two settlements are almost identical.
“These agreements require federal officials to disclose the harm that fracking does to the air, water and communities of Central California,” said Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For decades this region’s people and wildlife have been paying the price of filthy fossil fuel extraction. That has to end, and we’ll do everything possible to make sure these pauses become permanent bans.”
Federal judges in the Eastern District of California and Central District of California handled the cases and must sign off on the agreements.
"Fracking is dangerous for our communities, damaging to our environment, and out of step with California's climate goals. The Trump administration recklessly opened Central California up to new oil and gas drilling without considering how fracking can hurt communities by causing polluted groundwater, toxic air emissions, minor earthquakes, climate impacts, and more. In keeping with the Bureau of Land Management's mission to preserve the health of our public lands, it must reassess this Trump-Era mistake," said Attorney General Rob Bonta in a press release.
The Bureau of Land Management did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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