The land bank near Purisima, called the Rancho Santa Rita Preserve, includes 120 acres of federal lands that are among more than a million acres of Central California slated for oil and gas lease sales. A temporary halt to the sales is in place while a stiffer environmental review examines the impacts of fracking. | Credit: Bruce Reitherman (file)

New oil drilling and fracking was put on hold for federal lands in Central California after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) settled with the State of California and several environmental groups. Lawsuits filed in 2020 succeeded in arguing once again that the environmental review done for a lease-sale project across eight counties and covering more than a million acres failed to adequately address impacts, including those from fracking, on California residents and land.

“The Trump administration recklessly opened Central California up to new oil and gas drilling without considering how fracking can hurt communities by causing polluted groundwater, toxic air emissions, minor earthquakes, climate impacts, and more,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a press release on Monday.

Included in the temporary moratorium for Santa Barbara County is almost the entirety of Vandenberg Space Force Base’s 102,000 acres, which had been called “open” for drilling though the base requires security for its missile launches. The federal leases are in rural areas — 1,793 acres near Tepusquet Canyon — and urban ones, such as the more than 3,000 acres in the City of Lompoc and 40 acres near Cate School near Carpinteria.

Waterways would also be affected: The headwaters of Nojoqui Falls, 1,766 acres near the Sisquoc River, and 60 acres around Lake Cachuma are on the BLM’s list. Even conservation and preservation lands would be opened for drilling: 160 acres of the Rancho Santa Rita Preserve, which is a land bank known to hold the endangered California tiger salamander, and 13,000 acres in the Cuyama Valley foothills adjacent to lands up for federal protection as a wilderness area.

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Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, was among the organizations fighting the lease sales. Kuyper said the history went back to 2013, which was during the Obama administration. “In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the BLM violated the law when it issued oil leases in Monterey County without considering the impacts of fracking. That ruling eventually resulted in a statewide moratorium on leasing.” When federal lands in eight counties — Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura — were put up for lease, a federal judge again ruled in favor of stricter review in 2016.

“Fast-forward to this current lawsuit, which challenged the redo,” said Kuyper. “Here, the judge didn’t issue a ruling; instead, all parties reached a settlement agreement, whereby the BLM will do a second redo of the environmental analysis. In the meantime, no new lease sales will occur.”

Liz Jones, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the litigants in the most recent case, said the most recent review had minimized the number of wells likely to be fracked on the new leases. That led to an underestimate of the impacts to air quality, climate, water quantity and quality, and health and safety for California residents, she said. The public outreach this time, she added, will include Spanish-language translation.

A spokesperson for the BLM California State Office said the agency “respectfully declines to comment at this time.”

Kuyper noted the harmful effects of fossil fuel use far and wide: “Fossil-fuel extraction has wreaked havoc on our public lands, our farms and our neighborhoods for far too long…. Today’s agreement protects the iconic landscapes that define Central California, safeguards public health, and moves us closer to a cleaner energy future.”

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