Oil Drilling on California’s Federal Lands Set to Resume After 8 Years, Sets up Early Test of Biden Administration

 

FELLOWS, Ca.— When the sun rose on the morning of Nov. 13, a procession of pumpjacks cast long shadows across golden hills. A lonely cow spent the night ten yards away but now stood backlit by the smog-filtered sun on the horizon.

Exactly 11 months earlier, the Trump administration had gone ahead with plans to approve new oil drilling leases on public lands in California. The decision opened more than 1.5 million acres to drilling and ended an eight-year moratorium on federal land leasing in the state. The first seven parcels, 35 miles outside Bakersfield total 4,333.58 acres and are slated to go on sale Dec. 10.

More than 90,000 public comments opposed to the development have been gathered by community organizations and submitted to the Bureau of Land Management. But for now, the auction will proceed as planned. With agency directives from the Trump administration driving the opening and development, many residents and community organizations are hoping the incoming Biden administration keeps its promises to end federal land leasing for oil and gas extraction and prevents any deals from going forward.

“Biden has promised to end new oil, gas, and coal leasing,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity and the Director of the Climate Law Institute in Oakland, CA. “And I think that he will because continuing to lease is absolute madness,” she said.

The Paris Climate Accord, which President-Elect Biden has vowed to rejoin, urges countries to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“There is more than enough oil and gas already developed globally to blow past 1.5 degrees, so to be opening up new land for development makes absolutely no sense,” said Siegel.

Lawsuits Siegel and the center won in 2013 had prevented new leasing prior to the Trump administration’s Dec. 2019 decision. Now, after a year of environmental review and community consultation, the project is set to continue unless the courts or a Biden administration intervenes. “Biden has promised to end new oil and gas leasing on day one, so we will hold him to it,” she said.

In addition to the climate change impacts, there are concerns about the health consequences new wells could have for local communities who have voiced their opposition.

“The entire San Joaquin Valley has an air pollution problem and the entire region can be classified as a sacrifice zone,” said Dr. Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and former coordinator for Californians Against Fracking and Dangerous Drilling.

Sacrifice zones are places in which harmful landfills, oil drilling, and industrial agriculture are concentrated. “There are clusters of communities that deal with much more direct and dangerous exposures than we experience at the regional level,” she said. “It impacts people in a lot of ways: years off their lives, respiratory illnesses, lost school and work days, the list goes on.”

Somer Shaw, a public affairs officer with the Bureau of Land Management said in a written statement that public input “is important to the [National Environmental Policy Act] process” and has “helped us clarify language in the analysis which addresses air and atmospheric values, water, and biological and cultural resources, among others.” The statement also asserts that “responses to public comments are included in the analysis.” But most of them won’t be taken into account.

According to the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) created by the BLM, the submitted public comments were sorted into “substantive” and “non-substantive” categories based on “accuracy,” “adequacy,” and other standards.

Comments deemed “non-substantive” accounted for more than 87,000 of the total submissions. Per BLM documents they “generally will not affect the analysis in the Final Supplemental EIS” meaning nearly 95% of the public comments will not be taken into meaningful account. The 562 comments that qualified as unique and substantive ultimately received largely identical responses. What did BLM person say when you pointed this out to her? That vast majority being deemed irrelevant?

Rebecca August, director of advocacy with the Los Padres Forest Watch, helped organize residents living near the proposed leases and collected the protest comments with a coalition of other local organizations. “It made the public really feel that you couldn’t say something unless you had a science degree,” she said. “You couldn’t just say ‘I’m concerned about the threatened and endangered species in that area’ that wasn’t specific enough.” Comments like this could be disqualified based on the physical form in which they were received or for any of the other five standards defined by the BLM.

Much of the disagreement around potential environmental consequences comes from the assumption that leasing these public lands will inevitably lead to drilling.

The Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a final summary of the environmental impacts from the BLM’s Bakersfield Field Office argues that “the competitive oil and gas lease auction does not automatically produce effects as it does not authorize surface disturbance” and concludes as a result that the lease sale “will not have significant environmental impacts.” This overarching position held by the BLM allows them to separate the lease sale itself from any subsequent environmental damage.

Shaw’s statement from the BLM Office of Public Affairs explains that “the act of leasing does not authorize any development or use of the surface of leased lands without further application by the operator and approval by the BLM.” In other words, there will be additional hurdles and permitting processes before any drilling occurs. But with an audit from the California Department of Finance finding hundreds of oil wells were improperly issued drilling permits in 2019, the validity of that process has been called into question.

The community organizations argue that the BLM’s assumption is naïve. “Their analysis is fundamentally flawed,” said Jenny Binstock, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club. As a result of this assumption “[the BLM] fails to take into meaningful account impacts to the environment, impacts to the climate, and impacts to community and human health,” Binstock said.

Each of the seven new parcels has been approved for leasing despite being located in habitats occupied by endangered species of plants and animals. One is the critically endangered San Joaquin Valley Kit Fox whose population is still declining due primarily to habitat destruction.

“This land is adjacent to a wildlife refuge that was established to protect the endangered condor, and to do so in one of the most pollution-burdened regions of the country where communities of color and low-income communities are already overburdened by poor air quality, it is completely unreasonable to suggest that the impacts of opening new land for extraction are negligible,” Binstock said.

Though the BLM argues the lease sale itself would not necessarily bring about these consequences, individual plots of land have to be nominated by an oil company before going up for auction. A company spending the time to nominate and purchase a leased plot would likely have intentions of drilling.

To help ensure these lands aren’t developed, Siegel and the Center for Biological Diversity says her coalition will sue over any leased plots.

But such legal action may be unnecessary. These parcels now carry the risk of an organized and motivated community, making the prospects for oil companies less certain.

Siegel says Biden “has the power to revoke any improperly issued lease,” but others within the coalition are more skeptical of the prospects for action.

“I think there is potential to unwind what has been done, but do I think it will be enough? Probably not,” said Dr. Garoupa White. “Even if we ultimately start moving in that direction it will only be because organizations continue to exert a lot of political pressure to actually make that happen.”