Monday, August 05, 2013

BLM Launches EIS Process For Fracking On CA Public Lands

Aug 2:  As part of a cooperative effort with the State of California and in response to a series of legal challenges, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced it will launch a broad science review and a planning review of oil and gas development on public lands managed by the Hollister Field Office in California. The process will evaluate a full range of options, including whether such development is appropriate and if so, where and how it could be carried out safely and responsibly. Information resulting from the planning and science review will further inform future oil and gas leasing decisions.

    The planning review will begin with a scoping period to solicit public input. This is the first phase of a process that may lead to the development of an environmental impact statement to amend one or more BLM resource management plans (RMPs) for field offices that have existing leases and expressions of interest in future leasing. Following publication of a Notice of Intent in the Federal Register on August 5 2013 [78 FR 47408-47409], interested parties will have 60 days to submit comments on issues related to oil and gas leasing and development. Public scoping meetings are tentatively scheduled for fall 2013. 

    The science review will be undertaken as part of a third party independent assessment of industry practices and the geology of oil and gas basins in the state. Led by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), the assessment report will consider geology, well completion techniques and the environmental impacts of those techniques. The report, anticipated in early 2014, will be peer-reviewed and published through CCST. BLM California State Director, Jim Kenna said, "The planning process, coupled with the findings of the science assessment, will improve our resource management plans. 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."

    Over the last 24 months, most oil and gas leasing actions on BLM-managed public lands in California have been litigated, appealed, or protested. In particular, the Hollister Field Office is facing legal challenges that threaten its ability to conduct oil and gas leasing. The scoping period provides the public an opportunity to comment on the full suite of oil and gas leasing and development issues in the geographic area covered by the field office. In addition, the science review and planning effort will allow the BLM to revisit litigated, appealed, and protested lease sales at a later date. Applications for permits to drill on existing leases will continue to be processed during the reviews. Fifteen (15) days prior to the public scoping meetings, BLM will publish a notice of the meetings in the Federal Register, issue news releases and post notices of the dates on multiple BLM California web sites. 

    The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Sierra Club said they were pleased with BLM's decision to begin developing a new "environmental impact statement" for fracking in Central California, along with a statewide independent scientific assessment of what they said is "the dangerous oil extraction process." The decision comes in the wake of a legal victory earlier this year in a suit brought by the CBD and Sierra Club, which challenged the BLM's decision to auction off about 2,500 acres of land in Monterey County to oil companies. A Federal judge ruled in April that the BLM had violated the law by not considering fracking risks or preparing an impact statement for its lease-sale decision. In mid-April the conservation groups filed a second case, challenging a subsequent and similarly flawed lease sale that covered almost 18,000 acres in the same region.

    Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at the Center, who argued the lawsuit for the plaintiffs said, "We're pleased that federal officials are finally starting the full analysis of fracking pollution's dangers that should have been done before these public lands were auctioned off to oil companies. Fracking these sensitive places threatens California's air, water, wildlife and climate. In an era of dangerous climate change, the government should be protecting our remnant public lands, not leasing them out for fossil fuel development."

Fracking employs huge volumes of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals to blast open rock formations and extract oil and gas. The controversial technique is already being used in hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of California oil and gas wells. Oil companies are aggressively trying to frack the Monterey Shale, a large geological formation running beneath these federal leases believed to harbor about 15 billion barrels of oil.

    Nathan Matthews, associate attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program said, "The BLM's decision to conduct a full EIS on fracking and drilling in the Monterey shale is a good first step toward understanding how destructive the process can be, and to what extent it pollutes our air and water. The study will shed further light on the risks inherent in fracking and drilling for oil and gas. We should not be drilling for oil and gas unless those risks are understood and can be fully mitigated. Ultimately, for a stable climate and for public health, we need to keep oil, gas and other fossil fuels in the ground, while moving as quickly as possible to clean energy like wind and solar." 

    The groups indicated in a release that, "Fracking has been tied to water and air pollution in other states, and the process can release huge quantities of methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas. Increased fracking threatens to unlock vast reserves of previously inaccessible fossil fuel deposits that would contribute to global warming and bring us closer to climate disaster. Fracking also routinely employs numerous toxic chemicals, including methanol, benzene and trimenthylbenzene." They cited 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. They also cited two recent studies in the journal Science found that injection wells, commonly used to dispose of contaminated fracking wastewater, can raise the risk of dangerous earthquakes.

    The Bureau's impact study will address the impacts of fracking in the region managed by the agency's Hollister field office, which encompasses 280,000 acres of public lands and 440,000 acres of split-estate lands in Central California, including areas subject to leasing in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties. The independent scientific review will analyze the scope and impacts of fracking Statewide. Completion of the environmental impact statement and scientific review are likely to take more than a year. It is unlikely that further oil leasing and development activities can occur in the areas covered by the impact statement until its completion. A court hearing originally scheduled for next week has been continued to allow the parties to discuss settlement of the two cases.

    Access a release from BLM (click here). Access more information on the scoping schedule (click here). Access a release from Sierra Club & CBD (click here). Access the FR notice (click here). Access the CCST website for more information as it becomes available (click here). [#Energy/Frack]