Conservationists Sue to Block Federal Oil and Gas Leases in California, Courthouse News Service

Nick CahillOctober 30, 2019

(CN) – California environmental groups sued the Trump administration Wednesday to thwart plans to auction over 700,000 acres to the fossil fuel industry, calling the potential of new fracking operations a threat to the San Francisco Bay Area’s wildlife and aquifers.

Filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club, the lawsuit accuses the Trump administration of ignoring science when it decided to open up various dormant leases to bidders looking to drill for oil and gas in some of the state’s most scenic counties including Monterey, Alameda and Santa Cruz.

“Trump wants to unleash a frenzy of drilling and fracking in some of California’s most spectacular landscapes, from the high deserts to conifer forests,” said Clare Lakewood, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Oil and gas extraction is a dirty, dangerous business that poisons our water, kills wildlife and worsens the climate crisis.”

The administration’s decision clears the way for the Bureau of Land Management to potentially hold its first lease sale in California since 2013, when a federal judge ruled that it issued new leases in Monterey and Fresno counties without considering the environmental impacts of fracking.

When it announced the decision on Oct. 4, the White House tried to downplay the potential for environmental harm by saying the newly available land is “expected in or near already existing oil and gas fields.” The BLM added the companies that win the leases will be expected to perform additional environmental review before digging and drilling can begin.

Critics viewed the contentious decision as the latest example of the Trump administration trampling environmental policies enacted by state and local governments: Portions of land to be made available cover stretches of Monterey, San Benito, Alameda and Santa Cruz counties, where voters and county supervisors have passed ordinances banning fracking and new oil wells.

The BLM didn’t immediately comment on Wednesday’s lawsuit, but said this month that the counties’ ordinances only apply to local land and have no impact on federal lands.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, accuses the BLM and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of violating the National Environmental Policy and Federal Land Management and Policy acts when they approved the changes to the resource management plan. The conservationists claim new fracking wells could not only poison groundwater and increase the risk of earthquakes, but potentially harm threatened and endangered species like the San Joaquin kit fox, the California red-legged frog and the steelhead trout.

They want a judge to vacate the plan and bar any auctions for oil and gas leases until the government has approved a plan that complies with the law.

“The Trump administration is putting California’s communities and our climate at risk as they prioritize fossil fuel industry profits over our public lands and the health and safety of our families,” said Jenny Binstock of Sierra Club. “Today we are continuing the fight to protect our public lands from the Trump administration’s reckless fracking expansion.”

There are currently 35 active oil and gas fields and over 4,200 wells in California’s Central Coast planning area. Studies have shown that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking can contaminate groundwater and increase air pollution.

In late September, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study showing oil and gas development in Kern County has contaminated underground water sources with benzene, ethylbenzene and xylene.