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Feds Postpone Drilling Lease Auctions of California Public Lands

BLM cites budget, staff constraints, anti-fracking activists say lawsuits forced agency decision

Advantage, anti-fracking activists. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced that it is postponing all oil and gas lease sales in California for the rest of the federal year.

This means the bureau’s plan to auction drilling leases for another 1,300 acres of public lands in Fresno and Kern counties later this month is now on hold at least until October. Same with another planned auction of 2,000 acres in Colusa County.

oil field in Central CalifPhoto by Ryan StavelyAn existing oil field in central California. The BLM move comes less than a month after a federal judge ruled that the agency had violated
the law by leasing 2,500 acres of public land in Monterey County without evaluating the environmental risks of fracking.

The move comes less than a month after a federal judge ruled that BLM had violated the law by leasing 2,500 acres of public land in Monterey County without evaluating the environmental risks of fracking. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit by Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) that claimed that BLM had not adequately reviewed the impact of fracking on local air quality, water supplies, and wildlife.

The ruling will likely have implications for a more recent lease sale of another 18,000 acres of prime public lands in central California last December, in areas that house established vineyards and several endangered species. Sierra Club and CBD have filed a lawsuit against this sale too.

Now our friends at BLM are citing budgetary restrictions and low staffing as the reason behind the move. But it seems pretty clear that their decision was, at least in part, prompted by the ruckus being raised by environmental groups and California lawmakers against opening up the Golden State for further drilling.

“BLM is an agency that doesn’t like to admit when it’s wrong. The sequester is just an excuse for them to do what they had to do,” says Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because of the lawsuit they just lost, they know that they can’t legally hold additional lease sales in California without a full environmental review” He said that was why the agency was putting the process on hold here while still carrying out leasing auctions in other parts of the country despite the budget cuts.

California could very well be on the verge a drilling boom. Oil companies are increasingly eyeing the Monterey Shale – a geological formation beneath the BLM leases that contains an estimated 15.42 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Given the type of shale formation here, removing oil from this formation will most likely require the environmentally destructive fracking extraction process.

Environmental activists and clean energy advocates worry that an oil boom would not only cause immense environmental damage, but also that it would also slow down the state’s move toward a clean energy economy and undermine California’s ambitious goal of cutting back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

In an effort to check the imminent drilling rush, anti-fracking campaigners have filed a series of lawsuits against state and federal drilling regulators, and California legislators have introduced several bills seeking to either regulate the oil industry’s expansion in the state, or put a drilling moratorium in place. (Read my previous report about the mustering of forces to fight fracking in California here.)

It seems these efforts are beginning to bear some fruit.

Not long after the federal court declared (on April 8) the BLM’s Monterey County lease sale illegal, three state bills seeking a moratorium on fracking in California won key votes, passing the Assembly Natural Resources Committee despite intense pressure from the oil industry. And now we have BLM putting its lease sales on hold.

“Hopefully the time this [hold on sales] creates will allow California to pass a moratorium on fracking and give [Department of Interior Secretary] Sally Jewel the time to look into the matter and realize that selling oil and gas leases on public land is a mistake,” said Cummings.

Meanwhile, environmentalists say they will keep the pressure on.

“California is the new battleground for fracking after New York,” said Jenny Chang, communications strategist at Sierra Club. “The state has a lot at stake, especially given the kind of green economy it has.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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