(CN) — The Trump administration opened bidding for gas and oil drilling leases on California public land Thursday, putting 4,000 acres of resources up for sale in the first auction of its kind in eight years.
President Donald Trump has long planned to open the Golden State’s public lands and federal mineral estates to oil drilling and fracking operations, and his administration hatched designs for over 1.7 million acres of such territory in the Central Valley.
This past August, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management signaled an impending sale when it announced it would open bidding on federal lands in Kern County.
The federal government has not issued new drilling leases in the state since 2012. A host of lawsuits by conservation groups have challenged the government’s process for reviewing the environmental impact of any proposed leases.
The BLM announcement in August sparked opposition from conservationists, public health experts and community groups who said future energy projects could imperil critical wildlife habitat such as the nearby Carrizo Plain National Monument and Wind Wolves Preserve.
Kern County is already disproportionately harmed by high levels of air and water pollution and the new lease sales would only exacerbate and perpetuate “environmental racism,” the groups said in a Sept. 25 letter to BLM Bakersfield Field Office Manager Gabriel Garcia.
“These harms are compounded by Covid-19 which attacks respiratory health,” the groups said in the letter. “The disproportionate pollution of frontline communities is an example of environmental injustice that new, nearby lease sales will only exacerbate.”
Further, the continued sale of publicly owned oil and gas rights would severely disrupt California’s clean energy goals, the groups wrote.
“Californians have experienced the full force of the climate emergency this summer, through unprecedented heat waves and fires that have been greatly intensified by the warming climate,” the letter said. “Fossil fuel extraction and use is by far the largest driver of climate change, responsible for three quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions.”
Bidding on the public lands opened at 8 a.m. Thursday and closed at 9 a.m.
In a statement, Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, expressed his frustration with the auction.
“My community is sick and tired of being sickened by the oil and gas industry,” Aguirre said. “This auction represents more of the environmental racism that’s turned communities like mine into expendable sacrifice zones.”
Central Valley gerontologist and activist Rosanna Esparza echoed the sentiment, saying in a statement the new oil leases would result in poor health for people in the region.
“Disparities in health status and access to healthcare are pervasive but often invisible in communities of color,” Esparza said. “What is clear, however, is that the wholesale auction of public lands to oil and gas development will surely impact health outcomes for these same communities for generations to come.”
A BLM spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the auction.
Studies have shown that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking can contaminate groundwater and increase air pollution.
A 2019 U.S. Geological Survey study showed oil and gas development in Kern County has contaminated underground water sources with benzene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity said Thursday she looks forward to holding President-elect Joe Biden accountable on his pledge to ban new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands and waters.
“As we close out a year of record-breaking fires and scorching temperatures, Trump wants to burn it all down on his way out the door,” said Siegel, who directs the center’s Climate Law Institute. “We look forward to working with President-elect Biden to revoke these illegal leases and make good on his pledge to protect our climate by banning new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.”
The Golden State is already one of the nation’s largest oil and gas producing states with nearly 8,000 oil and gas wells. The federal government controls over 45% of California’s total acreage, or more than 40 million acres.
Trump’s energy policy conflicts in many ways with California’s goal of sourcing 100% of its energy from clean, renewable sources by 2045.
The proposed auctioning of lands for gas and oil leases set up a 2018 showdown in federal court over a challenge to a California law allowing the state to freeze certain sales of federal land to private buyers. Senate Bill 50 was eventually nixed by a federal judge who found it intrusive and unconstitutional.