Fracking Federal Lands Faces Environmental Test

By Published On: August 8, 2013

The Bureau of Land Management agreed to conduct environmental impact assessments on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on public lands in three California counties, according to an Aug. 2 announcement. At issue is the “fracking” of parts of the Monterey Shale, specifically 280,000 acres of public land and 440,000 of split estate land, where the surface is owned by one person or entity and the underlying mineral rights are federally-owned. “The study will shed further light on the risks inherent in fracking and drilling for oil and gas,” said Nathan Matthews, the Sierra Club's environmental law program attorney. The Center and Sierra Club sued the bureau for failing to conduct environmental analyses before auctioning the public lands in Central California earlier this year. The federal agency is set to hold public scoping meetings this fall on its environmental assessment. It also is going to conduct a comprehensive scientific study, looking at more than fracking impacts, including those of well casings and other methods to produce oil and gas, including via acidification, said agency spokesperson David Christy. As part of this study, the agency is teaming with the non-profit California Council of Science & Technology to review studies related to drilling and fracking risks. The study is to be a “full analysis of fracking pollution’s dangers that should have been done before these public lands were auctioned off to oil companies,” said Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel. An assessment of the environmental impacts to fracking public land in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties comes in response to a ruling by the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California last April. In two separate suits, the center and Sierra Club sued the bureau for auctioning off more than 20,000 acres to oil companies prior to carrying out environmental analyses of fracking. The federal court ruled that the National Environmental Policy Act requires environmental impact assessments of possible fracking impacts. “The planning process, coupled with the findings of the science assessment, will improve our resource management plans,” stated Jim Kenna, the bureau’s California director. “This approach goes a long way toward bringing the most current scientific information on industry practices to planning and public dialogue about oil and gas leasing and development.” According to the two conservation groups, in fracking, wells routinely are injected with toxic chemicals, including methanol and benzene. “A recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health found that fracking contributes to serious neurological and respiratory problems in people living near fracked wells, while also putting them at higher risk of cancer,” the groups stated. The Monterey Shale is presumed to largely hold oil reserves. “There is likely to be some associated gas,” said Matthews. “It is unclear whether this gas would be captured and sold.” State fracking regulations are in the works. The state Department of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources is expected to issue draft rules by early fall. The only surviving bill, SB 4 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), to regulate fracking for oil and gas is expected to be taken up this month by the state Legislature (Current, July 5, 2013). The new agency rules and limits imposed by SB 4, if it becomes law, would apply to all BLM leases in the state. “As to whether these possible California changes impact the EIS itself, that will depend on a lot of factors, including the timing of everything,” according to Matthews. The environmental impact statements are expected to take more than a year to complete. The bureau and two conservation groups are in the midst of settlement talks over fracking on the public lands. The remaining issues of contention were not revealed. “We can't discuss ongoing settlement negotiations,” said Matthews.

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