Congressmember Salud Carbajal is seeking to extend the public comment period for plans by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to open 122,000 acres of federally owned and managed land in Santa Barbara County to fracking, a controversial method of oil extraction. Prior attempts to extend the comment period from 30 days — ending September 7 — have been rebuffed. Given that history, Carbajal is not sanguine about his chances for success. “The Trump Administration is once again attempting to sell off our public lands to enrich private corporations. By giving the public insufficient notice to comment on BLM’s proposal, it’s clear the administration does not have any interest in hearing from concerned citizens on the Central Coast. I have introduced legislation to protect more of our public lands from fracking, and I will continue fighting to ensure that these areas are protected for future generations.”
BLM spokesperson Serena Baker stated the process is still in its infancy — “We’re at the 100,000-foot level,” she said — and that the public will have ample opportunity to comment further. “It’s important the public understand we’re not opening up any new acreage for oil production; this area has been on the maps for decades.” To date, she stated, there’s been little interest by the oil industry. What’s new is that in 2015, the BLM opened this area up to possible fracking. When that happened, Los Padres ForestWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity sued, insisting that the potential impacts of fracking in this area be studied. They won. Right now, the public is being asked what issues they want examined in that environmental analysis. “This is not about whether you support fracking or oppose it,” said Baker. “It’s about what should be included in the environmental assessment.”
The total acreage included encompasses broad swatches of seven counties; technically, 400,000 acres are owned outright by the BLM, which owns the subsurface mineral rights to another 1.2 million acres. It’s expected that some of this land will be exempt from potential leasing because of obvious environmental or archaeological sensitivity. After that, it’s unclear the extent to which there’s active interest by the oil and gas industry. If and when such interest materializes, any specific development proposals would be subject to more focused environmental scrutiny. Leading the opposition locally has been ForestWatch’s Jeff Kuyper, arguing that such development would “pollute and industrialize these iconic landscapes.”
In Santa Barbara, the largest chunk of land that could be leased falls within Vandenberg Air Force Base, at 102,000 acres. Traditionally, Vandenberg has not been hospitable to oil development, and any toeholds the industry has secured there have been especially hard-fought. The next largest area — 13,375 acres — lies along the foothills of the Cuyama Valley, abutting Carrizo Plain National Monument. Nearly 1,800 acres are located within Tepusquet Canyon just outside Santa Maria, 340 acres are in the Santa Ynez Valley, 20 are near Lake Cachuma along Highway 154, and 40 acres are located in Carpinteria in the shadow of Cate School. When the BLM announced it was seeking 30 days of public input beginning August 7, ForestWatch objected that the map provided was blurry and asked for more time. Ultimately a new map was provided, but no additional time was extended. Kuyper objected that its release came two weeks after the comment period had started.