The Trump administration has finalized a study on the environmental and public health impacts of fracking, a final step towards opening more than one million acres of lands throughout the coastal and interior regions of Central California to new oil drilling and fracking, including a parcel in Carpinteria, located within a half-mile of the Cate School and parcels adjacent to Lake Cachuma, one of the sources of Carpinteria’s water supply. The action ends a five-year moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands in California.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a part of the U.S. Department of Interior, oversees the leasing of federal lands and mineral estates in California for oil and gas production. On Oct. 31, the BLM released the final environmental impact statement on potential effects of hydraulic fracturing, paving the way for new leases on public lands and federal minerals across 1.2 million acres in the eight counties governed by the BLM’s Bakersfield Field Office, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
In Santa Barbara County, up to 122,000 acres of land could be opened for new leases. Project-level leasing, access rights, additional environmental review and permitting would be required before any new oil and gas development.
The report’s conclusions support the Trump Administration’s “priority of promoting environmentally responsible energy development, while creating jobs and providing economic opportunities for local communities,” according to a statement from the Bakersfield Office. The report followed guidelines established in an executive order from President Trump.
In 2014, Bakersfield concluded a Resource Management Plan defining 1.2 million acres of federal mineral areas as “available for oil and gas development,” including 400,000 surface acres of BLM-managed public land.
A lawsuit brought by Los Padres ForestWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity, concluded in a 2017 court order for the BLM to halt new oil and gas leases and to conduct additional environmental analysis of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
Among other things, the 2019 environmental impact statement analyzes air and atmospheric values, water quality and quantity, cultural resources and Native American values, and social and economic resources. The study found that fracking poses “no significant impacts” and recommended no changes to the plan that allows drilling and fracking on federal lands including in and adjacent to national forests, parks and monuments; state, county and city parks and beaches; state and federal wildlife refuges and ecological reserves; important waterways like rivers and reservoirs; school campuses; segments of the Pacific Crest Trail; and other areas especially sensitive to environmental and health impacts.
According to the BLM, authors of the report considered the results of peer-reviewed studies done by the California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on hydraulic fracturing and well stimulation in California, as well as the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department’s Environmental Impact Report on oil and gas permitting.
The BLM’s report received immediate backlash from environmental advocacy groups, including Los Padres ForestWatch which called it a “sham study,” and Food & Water Action which called the conclusions “irresponsible.”
“If the BLM didn’t find impacts from oil drilling and fracking next to schools, under rivers and reservoirs, and in habitat that harbors endangered animals, it’s because they didn’t look,” said Jeff Kuyper, ForestWatch executive director. “The BLM has wasted taxpayers’ money and will cause irreparable damage with this sham study that places our treasured landscapes and communities at great risk.”
The BLM held three public meetings and received approximately 16,000 comments during the 45-day public comment period from April to June 2019. Of these comments, the agency deemed only 118 comments “unique and substantive.” ForestWatch contends that 100,000 area residents submitted letters and hundreds attended public meetings expressing concern over water and air pollution, public health and climate impacts, and damage to protected wildlife habitat and sensitive species. According to ForestWatch, the BLM refused to consider most public input by rejecting what it considered form letters, verbal testimony and comments that did not provide what it termed “substantive” information.
Cities, counties, Native American tribes and organizations, NGOs, the U.S. Navy, and elected officials were among those who sent letters opposing the plan which would allow oil companies to lease federally controlled mineral rights for oil development for as little as $2 an acre, according to ForestWatch.
The cities of Carpinteria, Ojai and San Luis Obispo, and the county of Santa Barbara, all passed resolutions opposing the administration’s plan to allow oil drilling and fracking that would threaten public resources and current land use. The local government and agencies will have little authority over how the lands are developed and whether impacts are mitigated once the federal leases are purchased.
The federal government hopes that oil and gas development within the Bakersfield Field Office district will generate 3,500 jobs and $200 million in economic benefit annually. The BLM collects a 12.5 percent royalty on every barrel of oil and gas produced on federal minerals, which ranges between $65-90 million per year. The BLM shares with California roughly 50 percent of oil and gas royalties collected with the remaining 50 percent in oil and gas royalties being paid to the U.S. Treasury. Public lands in California contribute to less than 10 percent of the total oil and gas activity in the state.
“At a time when the climate crisis demands that California move away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, it is the epitome of irresponsibility to expand fracking and drilling in our state,” said Ana Rosa Rizo-Centino of Food & Water Action. “The climate-charged wildfires raging throughout California and the loss of life and billions in damages they create, demonstrate the profound urgency of the crisis.” Rizo-Centino called on Governor Newsom “to counter Trump’s plans by halting all new drilling on state or private land in California to protect us from proposed oil and gas expansion in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and throughout the state.”
“Every step of the way, the Trump administration declined to do its job to put public health and the safety of the environment before corporate interests,” said Rebecca August, ForestWatch advocacy director. “It’s sad to see such disregard for the future of our public lands and the communities that depend on them.”
The Trump administration has also invoked a technical provision which denies the public a formal appeal or public review process to the BLM’s decision.
ForestWatch is working with its partners to evaluate “next steps.” “The matter could end up back in federal court,” according to the nonprofit’s leadership.