The Trump Administration is moving forward with a plan that could open roughly 1.2 million acres across nine counties in Californiaâ€™s Central Valley to new oil and gas drilling. The proposed area spans across theÂ heart of Americaâ€™s breadbasket, where a quarter of the nationâ€™s food is grown, on land that borders beloved national parks and monuments including Yosemite and Sequoia.
The plan has been in the works for years and was first included as part of the Bureau of Land Managementâ€™s Resource Management Plan released under the Obama Administration in 2012. The area includesÂ stretches acrossÂ Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura counties in California, and includesÂ 400,000 acres of public land.
The BLM has not held a lease sale in California since 2013, when a judge ruled that the agency illegally issued leases without analyzing the environmental impact of drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
A legal challenge to the initial plan filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forest Watch highlighted that the BLM had failed to include a legally required assessment of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing â€” a process banned in many European countriesÂ â€”Â that uses high-pressure injections of fluids, chemicalsÂ and sand toÂ extract more natural gas from wells.Â There hasn’t been a lease sale held by the agency in California since 2013 as a result of the lawsuit.
The BLM has now completed the required fracking impact statement, satisfying a 2014 settlement agreement, and is set to open the area to nominations early next year. According to the agencyâ€™s impact assessment, between 200 and 400 wells likely will be developed in the area, 10%Â on new leases. Of those, roughly 10% would be fracking wells.
Environmental organizations that have been fighting increased development in the area say they are not going to back down, citing concerns about potential increases in air pollution, water use and contamination, and threats to both ecosystems and vulnerable communities that call the area home.
Does it comply with the National Environmental Policy Act?
According to Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney and legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity, the new environmental impact analysis still falls short of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act. She also said via email that the BLM refusesÂ to consider and address concerns from her organization and the public.
â€œWe provided detailed comments on the draft to BLM, and it has failed to make changes in response to those comments,â€ she said, adding that during required public meetings the agency did notÂ provide Spanish translators or transcribe oral comments so that they could be officially entered into the record.
Many of the comments focused on how an increase in drilling could impactÂ air quality in the region. Central Valley cities rank among the worst in the country. In the latest State of the Air report from the American Lung AssociationÂ released in April this year, three of the top five worst cities for year-round particle pollution â€” Fresno, BakersfieldÂ and Visalia â€” are located in the area. This type of pollution not only causes respiratory problems, but is associated with reproductive harm, developmental harm, and premature death.
â€œThe Central Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation,â€ Lakewood said. â€œThis decision will only result in more emissions of pollutants known to cause respiratory conditions like asthma, heart conditions, and cancer.â€
Itâ€™s not just residents who are put at risk from bad air in the area. The swaths of land outlined in the proposal border both national parks and national forests, with the boundaries bumping against the edge of Sequoia and just south of the entrance to Yosemite. Both parks have also been heavily impacted by air pollution.
There were 2,739 days rated â€œunhealthyâ€ in Sequoia over a nine-year periodÂ according to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association. By comparison, bustling and smoggy Los Angeles had 2,443 bad air days â€” 296 days less.
The NPCA has raised concerns that new drilling will be detrimental to the parks and those who live nearby.
â€œThousands of these acres are within mere miles of Sequoia National Park and thousands more near the entrance to Yosemite,â€ said National Parks Conversation Association Director of Energy and Landscape Conservation, Matt Kirby, adding that these parks already have among the worst air quality in the country. â€œNot only are we further exacerbating the air quality for marginalized communities but also for these national parks and the millions of visitors who visit them every year.â€
Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and Cesar Chavez Foundation also have joined NPCA in denouncingÂ the plan.Â
The BLM downplays critics’ concerns
John Hodge, an associate Field manager at the BLMâ€™s Bakersfield Field Office, disputed the concerns saying the agency expects little to change. He emphasized that the BLM adequately included the public by holding three meetings and opening comments at two stages before the final report was released.
â€œI think we have provided a lot of interaction, we have had constant communication with the tribes,â€ he said. â€œWe have done outreach with other partner groups throughout this process. BLM has not been working in a bubble on this, by any means.â€
Hodge acknowledgesÂ that they received thousands of responses but they only include ones they consider â€œsubstantive.â€
â€œSaying I donâ€™t like something isnâ€™t really a substantive comment,â€ he explains. â€œSaying, I donâ€™t like this because it has impacts to air quality and hereâ€™s where we can point to this, that is a substantive comment.â€
Out of the 16,000 comments received, he saidÂ only 118 were deemed relevant enough for consideration.
Hodge also saidÂ there isnâ€™t a lot of potential for extraction in the area and the BLM is not expecting a lot of new development even after the area is reopened for drilling lease sales.
â€œWe can look over the last 35 years and see that the oil is where the oil is.â€ He said they donâ€™t think there is a lot there to drill. â€œIt really comes down to the geology of the area.â€
No matter its drilling potential, the BLM is still required to make the land available for oil and gas leasing. Now that the final impact statement has been released it has to be approved, which is expected to happen either next month or early next year. After that, the agency will evaluate interest in new leases.
In California, parcels of land are nominated for oil and gas lease sales by oil companies, property owners, or private sector agencies. Each new site must be evaluated for the potential effect on a series of environmental and cultural factors, including air quality, water quality, threatsÂ to endangered species, or historical artifacts.
â€œBasically similar but smaller effort to the one that we are doing for the larger planning level,â€ Hodge said. â€œWe will approve the well based on the findings of the environmental assessment.â€Â
Critics say that any new development would be detrimental and the organizations have vowed to continue challenging the plan.
â€œAll oil and gas wells result in air pollution, seismic risks, and greenhouse gas emissions we cannot afford if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,â€ said Lakewood. â€œThe science is quite clear that to avoid a climate catastrophe we need to stop issuing new leases to develop fossil fuels on public lands and move to phasing out existing production. The Trump administration is utterly determined to do the opposite.â€
â€œFrom our standpoint, this is not over,â€ Kirby added. â€œWe are assessing all of our options and we will keep up the fight.â€
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