Federal judge overturns plan to open California public land to fracking

A U.S. District Court judge on Sept. 6 overturned a federal plan to open more than a million acres of public land and mineral estate in central California to drilling and fracking.

The ruling by Judge Michael Fitzgerald of the U.S. District Court for Central California comes in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch, represented by Earthjustice.

The court ruled that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to adequately analyze the risks of fracking and other oil and gas extraction techniques when preparing a resource management plan that would have allowed drilling on vast stretches of land in California’s Central Valley, the southern Sierra Nevada, and in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

Earthjustict said in a news release that BLM officials estimate that companies would frack 25% of new wells drilled on these lands. Yet the bureau’s 1,073-page management plan contained just three brief mentions of fracking and offered no analysis of fracking pollution’s threats to endangered species or California’s water supplies.

“A management plan for BLM land in central California that doesn’t address fracking is like an emergency plan for San Francisco that doesn’t address earthquakes,” said Greg Loarie at Earthjustice. “BLM can’t just ignore the most important environmental issue on their plate,” Loarie said.

A hearing had been held in the litigation on Aug. 26. “Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment that the Bureau failed to take a “hard look” at the environmental impact of the resource management plan,” the judge said in the 27-page ruling. “The Bureau is therefore obligated to prepare a supplemental EIS to analyze the environmental consequences flowing from the use of hydraulic fracturing.”

The BLM’s Bakersfield Field Office manages 400,000 acres of public lands and an additional 750,000 acres of federal mineral estate within a planning area of 17 million acres of public land in the counties of Kings, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, Ventura, Madera, eastern Fresno, and western Kern.

Of the 130 federally listed threatened and endangered animal species in California, over one-third can be found in or around the area managed by the Bakersfield Field Office, the court noted.

Agency findings are usually entitled to “substantial deference” the judge noted in the decision. So review is “confined to the administrative record.”

The judge permitted the parties to file supplemental briefs on the issue of remedies. Plaintiffs must file their brief by Sept. 14 and defendants will file theirs by Sept. 21.

The case, Los Padres ForestWatch et al. -v- United States Bureau of Land Management is CV-15-4378-MWF (JEMx).

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.