Trump wants to open San Benito County land for oil wells

The federal Bureau of Land Management on May 10 announced a plan to open approximately 800,000 acres of public lands and underground federal mineral rights across California’s Central Coast to new oil and gas drilling, with specific targets in San Benito County—including areas surrounding Pinnacles National Park.

The BLM said the new plan, coming less than a month after it announced a plan to allow drilling on more than one million acres of federal land near Bakersfield, should result in 75 new oil wells in California over the next 20 years.

The announcement produced a not-unexpected chorus of objections from elected officials in the Central Coast region, including Rep. Jimmy Panetta, State Sen. Bill Monning and Assemblyman Robert Rivas.

California is the sixth largest oil-producing state, providing more than 8 percent of U.S. crude oil production from thousands of private wells, most in the San Joaquin Valley. The California Department of Conservation reported that as of April 2018, there were 31 active oil/gas wells in San Benito County, and 15 active oil/gas wells in Santa Clara County. The wells are operated by six companies on private land.

The new BLM plan would greatly expand the opportunity to obtain oil/gas leases on federal land, much of it in fragile, remote settings on the Central Coast.

The BLM’s proposed “resource management plan” published in the Federal Register May 10 analyzed six alternative approaches to oil and gas leasing and development, specified which BLM-managed public lands or below-ground mineral rights would be open to future oil and gas leasing and identified the stipulations or restrictions that would be applied “to protect resources.”

[subhed] San Benito is target

The resulting land-use management decisions would affect underground federal mineral rights primarily located in Fresno, Monterey and San Benito counties.

Rivas on May 13 asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to contest the unprecedented increase of oil exploration on public land, officially asking the governor file a protest, saying that the Trump Administration’s plans are inconsistent with state and local laws.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Fighting this destructive plan is the right thing to do to protect our health and our future,” said Rivas, who as a county supervisor in 2014 led California’s first successful anti-fracking referendum. “This move by the President was void of research or community input. That’s why I’m calling on the governor to use his power to review the proposal and highlight how this plan takes us backward and how it is out of touch with the will of the people. It is entirely inconsistent with state and local law.”

BLM regulations provide a 60-day window for Newsom to review the plan for any inconsistencies with state and local plans and policies and to provide recommendations. The general public has a 30-day protest period.

Panetta encouraged all residents to participate in the public comment period and share their opinions on opening more federal land to oil and gas leases.

“Our community is concerned about expanded oil and gas exploitation on the Central Coast,” he said in a statement. “It is critical that we share our opinion of the proposal directly with this administration.”

[subhed] Rivas cites ‘attack’

“The Trump Administration’s call to drill in vast areas of our community is a direct assault on our vital agricultural economy,” said Rivas in his May 13 statement. “The unlawful action will also destroy local tourism, which could imperil thousands of our local small business owners.”

“This attack on our communities is a distraction from the pressing issues we are all working to solve, like our farmworker housing shortage, the growing homelessness crisis, and the urgent need to improve our public education system,” Rivas said.

“I want us to be known for protecting our environment for future generations. I urge all residents to join me to stand up for what is right.”

Monning, in a statement, said, “The Central Coast already faces severe impacts of climate change. In California, we are moving to zero emissions, and this decision represents a step backward in protecting the health of our communities from the consequences of climate change. It also threatens the public health and safety of all Californians.”

The area considered by BLM to contain the “highest potential” for oil and gas resources generally covers the southern Salinas Valley of Monterey County, southeastern San Benito County (east of the San Andreas Fault zone) and the western flank of the San Joaquin Valley, including portions of western Fresno, Merced and Stanislaus counties. There are 41 active or abandoned oil and gas fields in this area; of these, only 13 contain underground mineral rights managed by the BLM, known as “federal mineral estate.” All but one of 13 of these fields are located within a portion of one or more groundwater basins: the San Benito River Valley, Bitterwater Creek (south of Pinnacles), Hollister (northeast of Hollister) and Vallecitos  Creek (eastern San Benito County, south of Panoche).

Environmentalists are concerned about the potential impact of oil/gas well drilling on groundwater resources. The state Department of Water Resources said that the BLM owns no underground oil/gas rights in the 50-square-mile Bitterwater Valley groundwater basin, the 38-square-mile San Benito River Valley basin or the 116-square-mile San Juan Bautista Area basin in northern San Benito County.

[subhed] Fracking in new wells

Most of the new wells in the giant Coalinga Field south of San Benito County in recent years, 76 percent, use “steam injection and water flood techniques”—also known as fracking, according to the BLM. A BLM spokesperson said most of the proposed new wells in the expanded region would not involve fracking.

The controversy over the development of oil and gas resources has been going on since 1921 when the first development was permitted. The San Joaquin Valley is home to 22 giant oil fields, each producing more than 100 million barrels of oil.

Since 1969, the concern about potential environmental damage resulting from a massive Santa Barbara oil spill resulted in a statewide moratorium on new coastal or offshore oil and gas leases, which continues.

However, the State Lands Commission reported that in 2017, 23 offshore rigs were still producing more than 7,000 barrels of oil per day, about one-tenth of the production at the time of the moratorium 50 years ago.

The BLM manages nearly 600 oil and gas leases in California, covering more than 200,000 acres. Between 80 and 90 percent of the agency’s oil and gas wells are in the San Joaquin Valley and more than 95 percent of all federal drilling occurs in established fields in Kern County.  

California’s federal production accounts for less than 10 percent of the state’s oil and natural gas production.

The latest action by the Trump administration follows by one year the announcement of a plan to revise the 50-year-old offshore drilling moratorium, opposed by state agencies and environmental groups.

The state Lands Commission, chaired at the time by then-Lt. Gov. Newsom, said it would not approve new pipelines or allow use of existing pipelines to transport oil from new offshore leases.

“The polluting fossil fuel industry has perpetuated inequality by burdening disadvantaged communities with toxic air pollution from refineries, and it would be unethical to intensify these impacts by expanding oil production,” Newsom said at the time.

“I am resolved that not a single drop from Trump’s new oil plan ever makes landfall in California, where our leadership in reducing emissions and curbing pollution has enabled exceptional economic growth. We will not be complacent in the face of Donald Trump’s deliberate partisan assault on California, its people, and its economy, and we will use every tool available to resist his cynical, regressive agenda.”

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