A recent deal between the federal Bureau of Land Management and several energy companies has put more than 2,500 acres of California public land, mostly in Monterey County, at risk of being fracked — an oil and gas extraction technique that environmentalists say is one of the dirtiest in the industry. But with hopes of stopping the fracking before it begins, two environmental groups are suing. The lawsuit, filed on December 8 in federal district court in San Jose by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, alleges that fracked oil and gas development projects could threaten landscapes, recreation opportunities, air and water quality, and endangered or threatened species.
Properly known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking involves shooting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals into the earth to break apart rock structure and release reservoirs of oil or natural gas. Environmentalists have decried the activity as a cause of serious groundwater contamination, and the US Environmental Protection Agency recently reported fracking to be the suspected source of subterranean reservoir pollution in some locations. Yet the federal government leased 2,343 acres of public land in Monterey County and 240 acres in Fresno County to three oil and gas companies for a total of $257,051 on September 14 without, environmentalists say, conducting an adequate review of potential environmental impacts.
The suit contends that the bureau went ahead and leased “sensitive lands in California for oil and gas development without analyzing the full environmental effects of doing so,” which would be a breach of the national Environmental Policy Act. “It’s just absurd and outrageous that the Bureau of Land Management would be selling our public lands to fracking without conducting a real environmental review,” said Kassie Siegel, senior council at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Bureau of Land Management released a lengthy environmental assessment last spring and subsequently accepted public comments before leasing the lands to Vintage Production California LLC in Bakersfield; Lone Tree Energy in Littleton, Colorado; and energy development baron Neil Ormond of Clovis. Erin Curtis, a spokesperson for the bureau, wrote in an email that the assessment included “a general analysis” of the potential impacts of extracting fuel sources with fracking.
Siegel conceded that “the paper is there. Our point is just that we don’t believe their environmental assessment is adequate.”
The lawsuit warns that vehicle traffic, underground blasting, leakages of oil and gas, increased need for local water resources, and air pollution that can be expected from fracking pose threats to the land as well as to the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the California condor, each an endangered species. Monterey County streams, where imperiled steelhead trout spawn, could also suffer, the suit alleges.
Chemicals often used in hydraulic fracturing include kerosene, benzene, and formaldehyde, and concerns about fracking’s effects on drinking water supplies have sparked controversy in Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, and other states. Just last week, the EPA released a draft statement that benzene detected in groundwater reservoirs underneath Pavillion, Wyoming may be the result of nearby fracking work. Now, fracking opponents in California are concerned that a similar scenario could arise if chemicals pumped into the earth should seep into Lake San Antonio, which lies about two miles west of the Monterey County property now under speculation by Neil Ormond, who is an agent of the Austin-based Vinton Exploration LLC.
Gary Lasky, vice-chair of the Sierra Club’s Tehipite Chapter in Fresno, says that fracking projects would mean intensive use of heavy machinery and trucks and would probably worsen air pollution in the Fresno area, where, he says, one child in three already suffers from asthma. “Any fracking done in Fresno County would negatively impact the air quality, and these cumulative effects would be a violation of the law,” he said. Lasky, noting the many controversies surrounding fracking, added: “Natural gas might be cleaner to burn, and that’s what the energy companies always tell us in their advertising, but it’s not cleaner to mine.”
In spite of the EPA’s formal recognition of the problems posed by fracking, the activity is rampant nationwide. Almost all the natural gas now being extracted from the earth in Wyoming and Colorado, for example, is a product of fracking, and in late July PG&E began piping natural gas fracked from the Rocky Mountains into Northern California via the Ruby Pipeline.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas development industry enjoys a relatively lawless landscape, thanks to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole.” This legal exemption was made in 2005 under the urging of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, known for his fossil-fuel industry ties, and exempts fracking activity from the restrictive language of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
And Cheney wasn’t the only politician who has been corrupted by money from frackers, according to a report released last month entitled “Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets in Congress.” The report, produced by the nonpartisan watchdog organization Common Cause, stated that “current members of Congress who voted for [the Halliburton Loophole] have received an average of $73,433 from industry, while current members who voted against the bill have received an average of $10,894.”
The report also stated that more than one thousand reports nationwide have been made about drinking water contaminated by fracking. Siegel said that, should fracking activity commence during current legal proceedings, the Center for Biological Diversity would seek an injunction to stop it.
Curtis of the Bureau of Land Management said that detailed, site-specific environmental analyses will take place once the three energy interests produce their respective development plans of the lands they have leased.
But Siegel doesn’t trust any environmental analysis that determines fracking to be a safe activity. “I just don’t think you can conduct a review of fracking in the Monterey shale and find that everything is going to be fine,” Siegel said.