Environmental groups take their digs at fracking plan
Bureau of Land Management says fracking in the Central Valley will have “negligible” impact on the environmental
By Reggie Ellis
bakersfield — The federal government released a plan last week to reopen more than a million acres of land in the Central Valley to fracking.
On April 28, the Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield Field Office released its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) proposing to open up 1,011,470 acres of public land and federal mineral estate in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties to fossil fuel extraction. If finalized, the plan would end California’s five-year moratorium on leasing federal public land to oil companies but will not open additional public lands or federal mineral estate to oil and gas leasing within the boundaries of the Bakersfield Field Office.
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a technique used to extract natural gas from shale rock. Massive drills bore out holes thousands of feet beneath the surface. Hydraulic fluid, containing small amounts of chemical additives such as acid, is then pumped into the holes until the pressure causes the rock to crack, releasing the natural gas which flows up to the surface. According to the BLM, about 90 percent of new oil and gas wells on public lands are fracked.
The EIS is an update of a 2014 plan that determined areas available for oil and gas development on approximately 400,000 acres of BLM-administered public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate on tribal and privately held lands in the Central Valley and Central Coast. About half of BLM acreage is located in the Buena Vista area west of Taft, a quarter in the Sespe area west of Simi Valley and some in the Lost Hills west of I-5 and north of Highway 46 and just north of Bakersfield.
The update is being conducted as part of a U.S. District Court Order issued May 2017, that requires the BLM to conduct supplemental analysis on the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing on public land and federal mineral estate within the Bakersfield planning area. The order was the result of a lawsuit filed jointly by the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, and Earthjustice.
“Trump’s plan would unleash a fracking frenzy that puts California’s people and wildlife in harm’s way,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in response to the EIS. “This administration is dead set on letting oil and gas companies dig up every last drop of dirty fuel. Putting these public lands back at the mercy of the fossil fuel industry would be a huge blow to our state’s future.”
The BLM has not issued a single lease in California since 2013, when a federal judge first ruled that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental impacts of fracking.
“This proposal targets some of our region’s most iconic landscapes, including state parks, nature reserves, recreation areas and national parks, forests and monuments,” said Los Padres ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper. “Residents throughout the central coast who care about the fate of these lands should let their voices be heard during the comment period.”
A 2014 report by the Associated Press linked fracking to more than 100 water well contamination cases in Pennsylvania. A 2016 report commissioned by Congress and published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances. The report, based upon review of over 1,200 cited scientific sources, cited drinking water impacts near fracking wells ranging from temporary changes in water quality, to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable. This is primarily due to hydraulic fluids injected into the ground that make their way into groundwater.
A 2015 report from the California Council on Science and Technology concluded that fracking in California happens at unusually shallow depths, dangerously close to underground drinking water supplies, with unusually high concentrations of toxic chemicals. The public lands at stake encompass “numerous groundwater systems that contribute to the annual water supply used by neighboring areas for agricultural and urban purposes,” a federal judge noted in 2016.
“Oil and gas extraction is one of the largest industrial polluters in the San Joaquin Valley, emitting dangerous particle pollution, smog-forming volatile gases and toxic air contaminants,” said Genevieve Gale, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “Additional air pollution from expanded operations adds insult to injury, keeping Valley residents at risk and limiting our ability to achieve clean air.”
This is particularly concerning for Tulare County, which is one of the most shallow, overdrafted groundwater basins in the state and has a high concentration of disadvantaged communities already struggling with water supply and quality issues.
“The San Joaquin Valley has the worst air quality in the U.S. and experiences severe groundwater depletion and contamination,” said Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “These problems are only going to be exacerbated if oil extraction and fracking are allowed on public lands. We should learn from the damage we have done to fenceline communities in Kern County, where thousands of low-income residents live near oil wells that emit benzene and other dangerous pollutants.”
In August, the BLM received approximately 8,400 comments during the initial 30-day public scoping period, of which 211 comments were unique and substantive, but only included a handful from Tulare County.
“Based on the analysis and public feedback, changes to the existing [plan] will not be proposed at this time,” BLM said in a released statement.
Most of the comments from residents raised concerns of water quality, but also raised questions of air and atmosphere, seismicity, special status plants and animals, minerals management, visual resources, fossils and soils, Native American and cultural values, livestock grazing and socioeconomics.
“County residents are concerned about the impacts of drilling and fracking near our region’s most treasured forests, wildlife refuges, national monuments, nature preserves, and trails,” said ForestWatch Public Lands Advocate Rebecca August. “We need to tell the Trump administration loud and clear that we’re not willing to pollute and industrialize these iconic landscapes.”