Judge Blasts Blind Eye to Fracking Concerns in CA

     LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a significant triumph for environmentalists, a federal judge on Tuesday ruled that federal officials failed to consider the damaging impacts of new fracking wells on California’s dwindling underground water supply and temporarily blocked an expropriation plan.
     U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald agreed with lead plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to take a “hard look” at hydraulic fracturing’s impacts in its studies and ordered the agency to conduct a more thorough environmental impact study.
     The bureau’s plan to open up more than 1 million acres across eight Central California counties to potential oil and fracking interests was put on hold by the Los Angeles-based federal judge.
     “The bureau is therefore obligated to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement to analyze the environmental consequences flowing from the use of hydraulic fracturing,” Fitzgerald said in his ruling.
     Fitzgerald sided with the environmentalists’ argument that the bureau violated the National Environmental Protection Act by skimming over the damaging impact that blasting chemicals underground in order to release gas could have on the dozens of federally protected animals in the area considered for drilling.
     While the bureau estimates that 25 percent of the new wells drilled will be for fracking, it only mentions fracking three times in its 1,073-page plan analysis.
     The center applauded Fitzgerald — a Barack Obama appointee — for forcing the bureau back to the drawing board.
     “This is a huge victory in the fight to protect our water and wildlife from fracking pollution and dangerous drilling,” Brendan Cummings, the center’s conservation director, said in a statement. “The Obama administration must get the message and end this reckless rush to auction off our public land to oil companies. As California struggles against drought and climate change, we’ve got to end fracking and leave this dirty oil in the ground.”
     Environmentalists hope the favorable ruling will cause the federal government to stop selling new leases to oil companies in Central California while it reworks the massive land project located in counties including Fresno, San Luis Obispo and Ventura.
     “This ruling will protect public lands from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the Central Coast from an influx of oil development and fracking,” ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper said. “These treasured landscapes provide many benefits to our local communities and are too valuable to sacrifice for a few days’ supply of oil.”
     Fitzgerald gave the bureau a Sept. 21 deadline to file an argument against the summary judgment in plaintiffs’ favor.
     Despite the ruling that orders the government to conduct more studies, the oil industry remains adamant that fracking in California has been thoroughly vetted.
     “Countless independent, state, and federal science-based studies all agree: Hydraulic fracturing, when regulated, remains a safe technology that provides enormous benefits to American businesses and consumers,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.
     The bureau argued that the plaintiffs’ claims were not ripe and didn’t identify a “concrete injury” required under Article III of the Constitution. It also claimed that the environmentalists were speculating about the bureau’s actual leasing intentions.
     Fitzgerald largely disagreed, writing that the center correctly identified the potential negative impacts fracking could have on its members who work and live in the Central Valley, and that it doesn’t need to wait until the drilling happens to make its claim.
     “Plaintiffs need not wait until leasing and permitting occur because the alleged procedural violation is complete even before an implementing project is approved by the bureau,” Fitzgerald wrote.
     In 2013, another federal judge ruled that the bureau violated National Environmental Protection Act on a Monterey County project by issuing oil leases without adequately considering fracking impacts. The bureau has yet to complete a new environmental review for that project.
     The Golden State has become the epicenter in the fight over fracking between oil companies and environmentalists. Monterey County will vote whether to ban the extraction practice in November while others including Santa Cruz, Mendocino and Butte counties have already approved countywide fracking bans.
     In the ruling, Fitzgerald noted that the bureau’s sweeping plan encompasses areas of “extraordinary biodiversity” and groundwater systems used by farmers and Central Valley cities.

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