A federal judge accepted an agreement today between community and conservation groups and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) suspending new oil and gas leasing across more than 1 million acres of public lands in California’s Central Valley and Central Coast.
A separate agreement also requires the Bureau to conduct new environmental analysis before drilling is allowed on 4,000 acres leased in December 2020 in Kern County.
“These agreements require federal officials to disclose the harm that fracking does to the air, water, and communities of Central California,” said Liz Jones, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “For decades this region’s people and wildlife have been paying the price of filthy fossil fuel extraction. That has to end, and we’ll do everything possible to make sure these pauses become permanent bans.”
Today’s agreements resolving the two cases follow two previous successful lawsuits filed by climate and community groups that prevented new onshore oil and gas leasing in California from 2012 to 2020.
“Protecting public lands is not only a step forward, but also a way to prevent several steps back,” said Cesar Aguirre, a senior organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “Using public lands to prop up the oil industry is dangerous to our green spaces and communities. We must protect our public lands not only for us to enjoy, but for us to protect Earth. Green spaces should not fall victim to oil drilling, especially because the extraction sites are the epicenter of the climate crisis. The less epicenters that are approved the less steps back we take.”
In 2019 the Bureau broke the leasing moratorium and reopened 1.2 million acres of federal public land to drilling and fracking in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura counties. That came despite opposition from 35,000 people and 85 community and advocacy groups.
Environmental justice, conservation, and business groups and the state of California filed lawsuits to challenge the management plan, citing the Bureau’s failure to fully evaluate the significant harms of fracking to communities and the environment.
“Today’s agreement protects the iconic landscapes that define central California, safeguards public health, and moves us closer to a cleaner energy future,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. “Fossil fuel extraction has wreaked havoc on our public lands, our farms and our neighborhoods for far too long. We now have an opportunity to chart a new course for safe and healthy communities throughout our region.”
“This agreement provides a long overdue reprieve for local communities and nearby national parks like Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which already face climate change driven drought, high temperatures,and annual wildfires, as well as some of the worst air quality in the nation,” said Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada program manager with National Parks Conservation Association. “Opening up over one million acres for oil and gas drilling in one of the most polluted regions of the country was an egregious decision by the Bakersfield Bureau of Land Management under the previous administration, and we are happy to see the Biden administration taking steps to protect California’s overburdened communities and environment.”
“Central Valley residents and grassroots activists work every day to make their communities healthy, and today they got a win in the fight against air and groundwater pollution from oil and gas development,” said Daniel Rossman, California deputy director with The Wilderness Society. “This agreement represents an important step towards ensuring our public lands are managed to prioritize people, clean air, clean water, and climate over fossil fuel industry profits.”
“The future of our business depends on the health of the planet, especially the wild places loved by our community,” said Hans Cole, head of environmental activism at Patagonia. “We’re grateful to have worked with our NGO partners to require a full evaluation of the impacts of drilling and fracking on public lands in Central California. This is a win for the environment.”
In December 2020 the Trump administration relied on the same flawed environmental review to auction seven parcels of public land in Kern County for drilling and fracking. Conservation groups also challenged that decision. Parcels sold include land within an area of critical environmental concern and land neighboring Carrizo Plain National Monument.
“Today’s win is a testament to the grassroots activism of Central Valley communities, who have fought oil and gas leasing in their backyards and supported people, public health, wildlife and climate,” said Nathan Matthews, a Sierra Club senior attorney. “Temporarily halting drilling on these lease parcels in Kern County is an important step toward stopping the unconscionable move of opening up new federal public lands for oil and gas leasing in the Central Valley, a region already overburdened by impacts of oil and gas extraction. The Biden administration should implement a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal public lands.”
Developed leases would disproportionately harm people who live in the region. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of Kern County residents are Latinx and nearly 20% of residents live below the poverty line.
“This is a win not only for the environment and climate, but for the people who call Kern County home,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “It is a disgrace that the federal government attempted to greenlight these leases without fully analyzing impacts on communities living nearby. Our victory has also worked to secure Spanish translation of pertinent documents, and live translation at public hearings, so that all stakeholders can truly have a seat at the table.”
New drilling would have intensified air and water pollution in the region, which already has some of the most polluted air in the nation and faces water scarcity and drought.
“The Bureau has repeatedly authorized oil and gas development in Central California without taking a hard look at the severe consequences to local communities or the environment,” said Michelle Ghafar, senior attorney with Earthjustice. “The agency must stop and fully evaluate the community and environmental impacts of all the oil and gas expansion it is authorizing on public land in order to comply with the law.”
Several analyses also show that climate pollution from the world’s already-producing fossil fuel developments, if fully developed, would push warming past 1.5 degrees Celsius. Avoiding such warming requires ending investment in new fossil fuel projects, including new federal oil and gas leasing, according to the International Energy Agency.
“Fracking on California’s public lands in the midst of our climate crisis and drought was always a pretty dubious idea and was straight-up unacceptable without proper environmental review,” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s crucial that the BLM takes the time to evaluate what opening up these lands to drilling would look like for local communities, who already live with crippling water shortages and some of the worst air in the country.”
Fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands causes nearly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, worsening the climate and extinction crises and disproportionately harming Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-wealth communities.
Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate policy proposals in recent years.
Oil and gas extraction uses well pads, gas lines, roads, and other infrastructure that destroys habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills, leaks, and other harms from drilling have done immense damage to wildlife and communities. Fracking and drilling also pollutes watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.