The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Bakersfield Office is asking for the public’s opinion on a plan to open some 1.6 million acres of land in Central California to hydraulic fracturing–an oil and gas extraction method more commonly known as “fracking.”
Environmentalists should definitely be very concerned the Bureau has started looking at fracking again, says Claire Lakewood, senior legal counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, which fought the BLM to a standstill over the issue in 2013.
However, those uneasy now over fracking’s potential to pollute air, soil and groundwater–as well as causing seismic instability–may want to wait to hit the panic button.
Wait and See
Lakewood says how the Center responds will depend entirely on what conclusion the Bureau reaches at the end of the lengthy process of writing an environmental impact statement (EIS). Yet she and the Center want the BLM to know there is a definte end they must reach.
“Ultimately, the very clear message is these areas shouldn’t be opened at all,” Lakewood said.
The massive range under consideration–approximately 1.6 million in total acreage–is spread over nearly a quarter of the state’s area. Included are parts of Tulare, Kings, Fresno, Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Many of the areas sit beside the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain National Monument on the Central Coast.
Others closer to home are adjacent to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on land the BLM controls in the Kaweah Delta Watershed.
Should the BLM conclude fracking is safe, it would be allowed only on land newly leased for gas and oil extraction. Current leases will not be affected by the EIS now being drafted.
The Center for Biological Diversity will be monitoring the creation of the EIS as the process moves along, Lakewood says, issuing mainly technical opinions.
“The Center will certainly be providing comments,” she said.
Threat to Agriculture
Fracking, which has long been controversial because of its wide ranging impacts on the environment, presents a particularly grim threat in the Central Valley, where the multi-billion-dollar ag industry depends on clean groundwater for production.
“Agriculture is the power house in your area,” Lakewood said. “All oil and gas drilling is a problem, but fracking is a problem above and beyond that.”
In the hydraulic fracturing process, a range of chemicals is injected into a well to boost production.
The chemicals, often proprietary to the drilling companies, can create a wide range of damage to human health and the environment, Lakewood says, and the danger is made manifold because of uncertainty about the formulations used.
“We know those chemicals can cause really dangerous health impacts,” Lakewood said. “We don’t actually know what all those chemicals are, because the operators hide them.”
‘It Comes Back Up’
To rid themselves of fracking waste, the used fluids are often pumped back into the now empty wells. It doesn’t necessarily stay there.
“It comes back up,” Lakewood said.
Alternatively, oil and drilling companies are allowed to store the used noxious chemicals in uncovered ponds, where the pollutants can evaporate into the open air.
This option is presents a particularly acute danger in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, which is home to the worst air in the United States.
The first option of leaving the chemicals in the ground is also uniquely damaging to the areas of California in question.
“One of the ways it’s gotten rid of is to inject it into the ground,” Lakewood said. “That causes seismic problems in an area already prone to earthquakes.”
Doing Its Job
Serena Baker, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, says the BLM is only performing work it must do, and the job is only to gather information at this point.
“We’re just analyzing the impact of potential hydraulic fracking,” she said. “This is basically Bureau of Land Management is making good on our commitment to analyze the potential impacts, as per our agreement.”
Baker is referring to a 2013 court ruling in a case brought against the BLM by the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forest Watch. In that decision, the Bureau was ordered not to issue any new leases for oil and gas extraction until it had done comprehensive studies on the possible negative impacts, both socioeconomic and environmental.
“They (BLM) said one in four of these wells could be fracked, but they didn’t analyze the impacts,” said Lakewood of the original call under the Obama administration to open the land for drilling. “That’s against the laws. They barely even mentioned fracking.”
A more than 1,500-page report contained only three brief references to hydraulic fracturing in the original documentation.
No New Leases Anyway
Baker says the 2013 decision did not actually halt the BLM from issuing new oil and gas extraction contracts, as that had already happened.
New leases were not being issued as a preventative measure during the drafting of a resource management plan (RMP) for the area that was to be issued in 2014.
“We don’t see it as a moratorium,” she said. “When we were drafting the RMP, the decision was made to hold off on any oil and gas sales until we’d had a chance to finish the analysis.”
The BLM, Baker says, in not merely going through the motions. While it is already studying the potential of fracking to harm species, the environment, groundwater and the local economy, as well as potential for increased seismic activity, it will be looking to public input for other areas not already under consideration.
“Really, the public input will determine if there are additional items that need to be studied and the range of alternative management strategies to be drafted,” Baker said.
Public Input Process
Whether fracking will ultimately be allowed will depend on the result of studies being performed now, as well as in the future.
That means it isn’t clear how the BLM’s decision will ultimately fall, nor is it entirely clear yet what the next step in creating the EIS will be.
“It kind of depends on what we find during this analysis,” Baker said. “This is really just the very first step in the planning process. There will be more studies.”
When the first draft of the EIS is compiled using public input being gathered now through September 7, it will present a slate of options that will be presented to the public for another round of commentary.
At some point, public meetings will be held throughout the area. Baker hopes the public will follow the BLM as it moves through the process of drafting the EIS, allowing them to better aid in its creation.
“Then those meetings will really give folks an opportunity to come and ask questions,” she said.
Lakewood also encourages the public to participate.
“They can certainly get in contact with the Bureau of Land Management and let them know you’re not interested in fracking in your area,” she said.
Comments can be emailed to [email protected] or mailed to the Bakersfield Field Office, Attn: Bakersfield RMP Hydraulic Fracturing Analysis, 3801 Pegasus Drive, Bakersfield, 93308.
For more information, visit www.blm.gov/california.