Fracking Fracas: BLM to Open California Public Lands

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took initial steps yesterday to open 1.6 million acres of California public lands to fracking and conventional oil drilling, ending a five-year moratorium on such practices in the state.

In its Notice of Intent, the BLM announced it will analyze the impact of fracking thought the state and will prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and a potential Resource Management Plan. The BLM has  solicited public comments according to a tight schedule; the comment period closes on September 7, 2018.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) noted in a press release, Trump Administration Moves to Reopen California Public Lands to Oil Leasing that the notice covers 400,000 acres of public land and an additional 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate, located in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura counties. It also provided background on thecurrent moratorium:

In 2015 the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch, represented by Earthjustice, successfully sued the BLM for approving a resource management plan allowing oil and gas drilling and fracking on vast stretches of California’s public lands without adequately analyzing and disclosing the impacts of fracking on air quality, water and wildlife.

As a result of the groups’ legal victory, the BLM agreed to complete a new analysis of the pollution risks of fracking before deciding whether to allow drilling and fracking on public land across California’s Central Valley, the southern Sierra Nevada and in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

The BLM has not held a single lease sale in California since 2013 when a federal judge first ruled that the agency had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental dangers of fracking.

In BLM kicks off review of Calif. fracking impacts, Energy Wire discussed what followed from the US district court for the central district of California’s 2016 ruling in this action and its wider significance:

The parties then reached a settlement in May 2017 in which BLM agreed to suspend new leasing while conducting additional fracking analysis. The agency has continued to issue drilling permits on existing leases (Energywire, May 4, 2017).

The court ruling and subsequent settlement were big wins for critics of fracking and other modern oil and gas technology. Environmentalists have frequently used litigation to push BLM to study potential impacts, but courts have only sided with the groups in a few cases. In another landmark case, a judge in Northern California ordered BLM to take a closer look during the leasing stage at risks associated with fracking.

Fracking Controversial in California

The Sacramento Bee reported in Trump administration moves to open 1.6 million acres to fracking, drilling in California that county supervisors in San Luis Obispo have placed a measure on the November ballot that would ban new oil exploration and new fracking operations in unincorporated regions of the county:

The measure’s leading proponent, Charles Varni of the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, said he was angered to hear of the Bureau of Land Management’s decision, which would affect pockets of land throughout the county but primarily in the eastern and northwestern areas.

“We don’t want to see any expansion of oil and gas extraction in San Luis Obispo County,” he said. “We want to protect our groundwater resources for higher uses.”

The CBD further emphasized:

A 2015 report from the California Council on Science and Technology concluded that fracking in California happens at unusually shallow depths, dangerously close to underground drinking water supplies, with unusually high concentrations of chemicals, including substances dangerous to human health and the environment.

The Sacramento Bee reported that environmentalists have asked Governor Jerry Brown to ban the practice, citing the potential to contaminate groundwater and increase earthquake risks, while the energy industry applauded yesterday’s BLM move:

Kara Siepmann of the Western States Petroleum Association, the leading oil lobby in California, said the association is “supportive of BLM beginning the comprehensive evaluation and scoping process of federal lands in California.” Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association, whose members include smaller oil companies, said expanded production could reduce the state’s growing dependence on imported oil.

Although Brown has allowed fracking to continue, the Legislature has passed a law that requires energy producers to get additional permitting if they practice fracking. And earlier this year, when the Trump administration began the process of repealing all federal regulations of fracking, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the administration.

The Hill reported in Trump officials open door to fracking in California that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has consistently endorsed increasing drilling on public lands in order to increase lease sales.

Environmentalists will monitor the BLM’s next steps closely, with CBD senior attorney Clair Lakewood saying to The Hill, “her organization will be waiting to see how the administration justifies fracking in their analysis”:

“You can’t justify drilling for fossil fuels anymore, there is no way to come out with an environmental analysis and find out this is OK,” she said.

Lakewood said the timing on the notice of intent was also particularly striking. At the end of July, the administration announced it would be weakening Obama-era standards on vehicle emissions standards, a move that would take away California’s ability to set its own heightened regulations.

[Jerri-Lynn here: See this previous post for more on the conflict between Trump regulators and California on emissions standards, Trump Regulators and California on Collision Course on Rolling Back Fuel Efficiency Standards.]

Unsurprisingly, Trump has his own unique take on the situation. , . You cannot fault the man for not having views on any and all topics (whether they’re logical or well-considered, however…). From The Hill:

Recently, President Trump has criticized the Golden State over environmental standards he has deemed too strict. This week, he sent a series of tweets blaming the state’s policies on water and logging for the number of wildfires raging within its borders.

Allrighty then. I guess climate change has nothing to do with the infernos. Trump couldn’t possibly be wrong on such a matter of vital national interest, could he? Surely not!

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    1. Lord Koos

      I was just about to comment about this because I was surprised to see zero mention of earthquake risks surrounding the practice of fracking. It would seem the height of insanity to frack anywhere near the fault. But we live in insane times I guess.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Most earthquake risk is associated not with the fracking operation, but with the deep injection disposal of wastewater from the operations. It seems most California oil and gas is relatively shallow – the earthquake risk would be dependent on where they dispose of the wastewater – but as that link shows, its not exacty well regulated.

      But for a State like California, the big environmental impact is likely to be on freshwater use, its not exactly an area with a surplus year round.

      1. Anon

        The San Andreas Fault is clearly visible at the earth’s surface. No need for deep injection to create increased fault slippage.

        1. The Rev Kev

          Aren’t earthquakes more destructive the closer they are to the surface? If earthquakes hit California because of fracking, will Silicon Valley be also liable to severe damage? My god – Facebook could go down! And any other tech company being run out of this region.

          1. Laughingsong

            Why, yes…. yes, it is. The 1989 Zayante quake’s epicenter was toward the coast and slightly southwest of Silicon Valley. On a smaller fault, only 15-17 seconds total, but boy was it memorable.

            I will say that Silicon Valley was not the worst hit structurally… not like SF or Santa Cruz, but the power was out for a good while. The power usage has only increased I imagine. When I visit family any more it’s so crowded that I am constantly reminded of an original Star Trek episode about a planet called Gideon that was supposedly a paradise but turned out to be so crowded that a native said that there was “no place, no street, no house, no garden, no beach, no mountain that is not filled with people. Each one of us would kill in order to find a place alone to himself. They would willingly die for it, if they could.”. So yeah, it could be bad.

      2. JCC

        Bottom line; earthquakes are already an ever-present risk, the critical issue in CA today is fresh water and using millions of gallons of frac water per well is insane just by itself, let alone all the other attendant issues.

        1. Jean

          Well, here’s a neat solution to the deep well injection quandry.
          Why not irrigate crops with it?

          It’s a threefer! Big Oil not only gets to avoid the costs of injection, but it [No, corporations are not people in the singular or plural] can sell the water to Big Ag. Bonus; Big Pharma stocks go up as more people get the Big C.

          Well, do you feel lucky Gunk?

            1. wilroncanada

              Who was it who wrote, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You? John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton. What good PR can do for any S*&#hole.

  1. Chauncey Gardiner

    Stunning that this deeply damaging policy is being announced in mid-August while massive fires exacerbated by climate change rage in the states on the Left Coast. It’s a directly confrontational “In Your Face” statement by this administration and their supporters in the fossil fuel sector to those opposed to further severe environmental degradation. Basically this administration and their financial supporters are saying, “We don’t care about climate change, the adequacy or quality of your water supplies, your air quality, or that many of you are losing your homes, livelihoods, and in some cases even your lives. We want the profits from extraction and sale of oil and gas from these publicly owned lands and we have the political power to get it.” In doing so, they are ignoring basic human rights.

    1. Wombat

      Yes and revoking the privilege of future American’s to enjoy unscarred wild lands, which are quickly being destroyed.

      This graphical depiction shows how little BLM land we have (and even less remaining wilderness).

      Mountain-top removal will be on federal lands soon enough, as Zinke cut a pending study on it’s harmful effects. Apparently, our future generations don’t have the right to live in chat-pile free communities, scale the mountains we have, or swim in streams unobstructed by tailings. Another year or two of resource control hegemony and cheap fossils is far more important.

  2. perpetualWAR

    Not only is this insane regarding earthquake susceptibility, but I believe California is in a water shortage. All oil drilling uses massive amount of water. So, the insanity goes well beyond earthquake susceptibility!

    “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
    ― Friedrich Nietzsche

  3. Wombat

    Ohh boy, I have been following Zinke’s assault on federal lands for a bit now, especially on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. Unfortunately these public comments are a Ryan Zinke handwave (of course we should dutifully submit comments nonetheless – if but to squeak our little-guy voter wheels).

    Extractors are already cashing in on Utah’s revoked monuments. . Surely they have already divided our lands in California too (whereby extractor’s use a middleman to sell fossils to for rock bottom prices- thereby reducing their royalty commitment).

    Thanks for keeping us aware of this sad news, I will spread the word on the public comment.

  4. john c. halasz

    But you basically can’t frack in California. The area is a major earthquake zone, with new unsuspected faults being discovered all the time, so the rock is already fracked. It used to be claimed that the Monterey shale was the largest untapped fracking resource in the country and fantastical figures were being bandied about concerning how much oil and gas could be produced in the U.S. But then the estimates for the Monterey shale were reduced by some 90%. And oil companies began to talk about an alternative extraction technique to fracking: acidification. Mmm, yummy.

  5. L

    We should be clear on Trump’s views. He did not in fact claim that California’s opposition to drilling was at fault. What he claimed was that they should permit more logging and that their policy of deliberately sending massive amounts of water to the ocean was wasteful and was starving firefighters of water needed to fight the fires.

    Thus it seems he is actually in favor of water conservation and does not believe that they are practicing it correctly.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Yes, for sure Trump needs to do something about all those rivers deliberately sending water to the ocean. How dare they?

    2. RUKidding

      Yeah, if only Governor Moonbeam would get offa his butt and command the rivers to flow up hill and to the east, then all of this nonsense about rivers flowing into the ocean would be taken care of.

      That’s what happens when lousy lazy libruls are in charge. They refuse to stop Mother Nature in her tracks.

      Too bad Ahhhnold Schwartzenegger fell down on that job, as well.

      tsk tsk

    3. Wombat

      This water war has been going on for a while. About 10-20% of the San Joaquin river (source in the Sierras) returns to the ocean to sustain a few endemic species that would cease to exist without the diminished wetlands of the San Joaquin Delta. California has ruled that a certain percentage of water must return to the ocean. The corporate farmers lobby extensively and feel it is their God-given right to leech every drop of the San Joaquin (a la the Colorado river- where Mexico uses every drop of the meager 10ish percent that reaches their border). Nevermind that many poor communities along the San Joaquin may not draw from the river and must rely on tainted well water instead.

  6. Oregoncharles

    Thanks for the warning. We’re probably next.

    Although, so far Oregon has been blessed by a total absence of fossil fuel resources, probably because it’s mostly volcanic. The big issue here is pipelines, trying to get someone else’s gas to our ports.

  7. David

    The Executive summary of the referenced 2015 report produced by the California Council on Science and Technology:

    An Independent Scientific Assessment of Well Stimulation in California.

    Some highlights:

    – Present-day hydraulic fracturing practice and geologic conditions in California differ from those in other states, and as such, recent experiences with hydraulic fracturing in other states do not necessarily apply to current hydraulic fracturing in California.

    – Operators in California use about 800 acre-feet of water per year for hydraulic fracturing. This does not represent a large amount of freshwater compared to other human water use, so recycling this water has only modest benefits. However, hydraulic fracturing takes place in relatively water-scarce regions…The state has recently begun requiring detailed reporting of water use and produced water disposal in California’s oil and gas fields…

    – Fluid injection in the process of hydraulic fracturing will not likely cause earthquakes of concern. In contrast, disposal of produced water by underground injection could cause felt or damaging earthquakes.

    – Shallow hydraulic fracturing conducted near protected groundwater resources warrants special requirements and plans for design control, monitoring, reporting, and corrective action.

    – Oil and gas production from hydraulically fractured reservoirs emits less greenhouse gas per barrel of oil than production using steam injection. Oil produced in California using hydraulic fracturing also emits less greenhouse gas per barrel than the average barrel imported to California.

    And most important:

    – Significant gaps and inconsistencies exist in available voluntary and mandatory data sources, both in terms or duration and completeness of reporting. Because the hydrologic and geologic conditions and stimulation practices in California differ from the other unconventional plays in this country, many data gaps are specific to California.

    1. leapfrog

      I have a terrible question to ask. Jerry Brown is very much in bed with Big Oil. Could the recent “water-saving” bills (limiting people to 55 gallons per day) have anything to do with paving the way for big fossil fuels to have more abundant water sources? A big population, fire season, agriculture and the environment are already competing for limited resources. What can the state of California do to stop this fracking insanity? Can our AG file injuctions? What happens next?

  8. leapfrog

    Gov. Brown recently signed a bill, AB 606, which will limit residents to a total indoor consumption of 55 gallons per day. Could the plan to frack have anything to do with this? California people, agriculture and wildlife are already competing for limited water resources. Is this bill an effort to help Big Oil and their water needs for fracking? Or is it, as the authors/signers claim, an effort to conserve and help the environment? Just my thoughts.

    1. Olga

      So how would they implement it? If you happen to use up your allotment by the 15th – will they cut off your water for the other two weeks? Or will they cut it off each day, once you’ve used up your 55 gal? Or something more creative…?

      1. JBird

        During the big drought in the 70s they gave warnings, fines, and tiered or progressive water rates. If all of the above didn’t persuade you to moderate your usage, the water department would just show up and shut your water off. Period.

        I think after paying the various large fines/fees after a period of no water, if you really promised to be good, they would turn it back on.

        It was worse than the last drought and the authorities started to get serious about rationing just before it ended. Thank God. I’m not sure what would have happened if it lasted another year.

  9. Trustee

    It’s just my guess but I believe the pressure to drill in California would be less if California, like every other oil producing state and country, put an oil extraction tax in place.

    I know big oil and Republicans would go crazy but if it’s good enough for a red state like Texas it must be OK.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      I believe almost all the land in Texas is privately owned. And definitely NOT federally owned or even influenced. So Texas was free to impose that oil extraction tax.

      Would California be able to impose any such tax on oil coming off of Federal lands?

      On the other hand, does State of California get to say where California water goes and doesn’t go? Does California have the right to withhold water from the Zinke Fracklands? If California does have that right, would it fail to extend to Federal water within California? ( water from Federal land or Federal dams)? And even if California has the right to withhold its own NON – Federal water from the Zinke Fracklands, would Gov Brown even bother to do so? Didn’t I recently read that Brown fully supports exempting and privileging the frackers to use all the water they please as long as they are using it to frack with? If so, why would Brown try withholding any water from Zinke Frackistan anyway?

      1. Trustee


        Who is responsible for this tax?
        The first purchaser of crude oil in Texas must pay tax based on crude oil’s market value.

        Oil production tax: 4.6% (.046) of market value of oil
        For report periods September 2015 and later, the taxable barrels are subject to the Oil Field Clean-Up Fee of $0.00625 (5/8 of a cent) per barrel
        For report periods September 2001 through August 2015, the taxable barrels are subject to the Regulatory Tax and Oil Field Clean-Up Fee amounts of .008125 (3/16 of a cent ($.001875) per barrel + 5/8 of a cent ($0.00625) per barrel)
        Reduced oil production tax rates for certified exemptions:
        Enhanced Oil Recovery Exemption (EOR): 2.3% (.023) of market value of oil
        Two-Year Inactive Well Exemption: 0.0% (.000) of market value of oil

  10. anon

    It should never be forgotten how duplicitous Blue Democratic Party™ Governor Jerry Brown was, in keeping a lid on the fracking going on already, as did the Bipartisan Governors preceeding him. Jerry Brown, along with those preceeding Governors, is as deplorable as Trump:

    Unregulated Fracking for Decades? Why California May Be a Disaster Waiting to Happen – It appears fracking has gone virtually unregulated in California for decades and now lawmakers are pushing back with legislation to expose the truth.

    Additionally, speaking of Fault Lines (some not yet discovered) discussed at the beginning comment (by jo6pac) thread, there are also those four California Nuclear Plants. Per numerous wiki pages:

    One still active site:

    Diablo Canyon Power Plant ‒ set to ‘close’ by 2025, located in San Luis Obispo County.

    Two previously ‘closed’ sites, still being decommissioned:

    San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station ‒ ‘closed’ in June 2013, located in San Diego County. It’s not clear on the wiki page — see Nuclear Waste Issue — whether there is remaining spent radioactive waste at the site [1], or, if it’s been removed, where it is stored now, Grundy County, Illinois?: The Morris Operation in Grundy County, Illinois, United States, is the location of the only de facto high-level radioactive waste storage site in the United States and holds 772 tons of spent nuclear fuel.[1] It is owned by GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy with an address of 7555 East Collins Rd., Morris, IL 60450.

    [1]According to the NRC, nuclear waste must sit in these pools for about 5 years in order to cool. It then must be transferred into a more permanent, dry storage, consisting of 80 underground steel lined concrete monoliths.

    Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant ‒ ‘closed’ in July 1976, located in Humboldt County, south of Eureka, California. Oopsie, MissingFuel Rods: In 2004 Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced that three nuclear fuel rods were unaccounted for due to conflicting records of their location. The fuel rods were never accounted for, though PG&E investigators believed at the time that they were still onsite in the spent fuel storage pool.. As to Decommissioning, 42 years after that closure: Currently, used fuel rods are being stored 44 feet above sea level in containers with very heavy lids. These containers are filled with helium, an inert gas, and will remain onsite so long as Congress and the Department of Energy does not comply with its agreement under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. [….] decommissioning of the Unit 3 site is expected to conclude in 2019.

    One closed and decommissioned site, with nuclear waste stored indefinitely on site:

    Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station ‒ closed in June 1989, located in southeast Sacramento County: approximately 11 acres (4.5 ha) of land including a storage building for low-level radioactive waste and a dry-cask spent fuel storage facility remain under NRC licenses.

    1. Olga

      Probably not completely Jerry’s fault, as the feds and states have been squabbling forever about where to store the R. waste. No solution so far. Nevada does not want it, but Texas could take some (for a small fee!).

  11. 4corners

    I don’t like this either. But I confess: I do use fossil fuel’s, and metals to-boot. It seems there’s a lot of out-of-sight-out-of-mind going on with domestic energy production and other extractive industries. I guess everyone would be happy if we continue to import oil from foreign despots? It’s not like any of us are going to forego jet travel or give up our private automobiles absent sweeping changes.

    Part of me secretly wishes for higher prices to influence consumer behavior. But of course that would also spur increased domestic production while disproportionately harming the working class. So, yeah, it’s terrible to see any degradation on our public lands, but to me, the alternatives don’t look much better.

    Curious to hear where NC’ers think we should be going on this.

  12. rjs

    i had been under the impression that they can’t frack most of California because the shale isn’t in a single flat layer like it is in most of the country…the continuous movement of the faults out there have tossed the Monterey shale layers up and down, into something that looks like mountains and valleys underground, making attempts to hit them with a horizontal drill pretty much of a crapshoot…so my first thought was that this is just Trump harassing California enviros, more than anything else…

    1. JBird

      Greed compels our neoliberal Overlords to try to extract wealth from any source no matter how small.

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