State and Enviros Take on Federal Oil Leases

Attorney General and Eight Groups File Separate Lawsuits Against Newly Opened Drilling and Fracking Lands

Attorney General Xavier Becerra | Credit: Courtesy

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The air quality in Kern County already fails to meet California standards, but Kern and seven other counties, including Santa Barbara, now have a total of more than a million acres of federal lands open to bid for oil and gas extraction as of mid-December. Kern also fails to meet federal environmental standards, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Friday morning while announcing a lawsuit to end the oil lease sales, the state’s latest fight against Trump administration actions. Earlier this week, Los Padres ForestWatch and seven other environmental organizations filed a similar suit against the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Oil and gas operations produce methane, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and other toxic constituents of air pollution that increase rates of asthma, heart and lung diseases, and cancer, the state pronounced in a press release. “The risks to both people and the environment associated with fracking are simply too high to ignore,” Becerra said at Friday’s press conference. “But that’s essentially what BLM is doing. We won’t ignore the facts and science when it comes to protecting our people, economy, and environment — and we’re taking the Trump Administration to court to prove it.”

In the BLM’s environmental analysis of the oil and gas lands proposal, only four wells were estimated to use fracking per year, Becerra’s office noted, “grossly distorting its consideration of environmental impacts.” Fracking uses toxic chemicals that can pollute groundwater and the air, Becerra said, which are known to lead to small earthquakes, land subsidence, and harm to species. The environmental organizations filing the parallel lawsuit cited a 2015 study that concluded that fracked wells in California are unusually shallow, bringing them closer to groundwater.

“Gov. [Gavin] Newsom just announced curbs on oil drilling, but BLM is charging full speed ahead with it,” said Ann Alexander of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental plaintiffs in the parallel action. “California is trying to find a way to rationally address its limited water supply, and now BLM is greenlighting activities that can contaminate it with toxic chemicals. This federal war on California really needs to stop,” she said. The plaintiffs also include Patagonia Works, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, National Parks Conservation Association, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Central California Environmental Justice Network.

From that last group, Director Nayamin Martinez worried about the health of his community: “California’s Central Valley already suffers from some of the worst air and water quality in the state, and the decision allowing leases for oil extraction in public lands would be catastrophic for our region and especially for the health of our communities.” He said that monitoring by his group near oil and gas facilities, pumps, and storage tanks shows the surrounding community is constantly exposed to “benzene and other VOCs that are carcinogenic.”

The San Joaquin Valley, and Kern County in particular, contains more than 95 percent of the federal drilling in California, Becerra’s office said. Along the coast in Santa Barbara County, areas near Jalama Beach, Lake Cachuma, and Cate School are up for lease, options opposed by county officials.

Becerra further noted that the feds’ decision interferes with California’s goal to zero-out carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2045. Together with Governor Newsom, the state air and water quality agencies, and Fish and Wildlife, Becerra’s lawsuit asks the Central District Court to set aside the decision to allow the land leases. The counties affected are Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.

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