Feds open more county land for drilling

President Trump clears 800,000 acres for oil/gas

In another stunning rebuke to California environmentalists and local officials, the federal Bureau of Land Management on Oct. 4 approved a plan to open 789,500 acres of public lands and underground federal mineral rights across California’s Central Coast to new oil and gas drilling.

The plan identifies specific targets in San Benito County—including areas surrounding Pinnacles National Park.

The decision, an executive order from President Donald Trump and a companion order from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, to promote “American energy dependence,” was not unexpected, as the BLM first announced its intentions in May. This month’s announcement stated that the final plan was an example of  “promoting environmentally responsible energy development while creating jobs and providing economic opportunities for local communities.”

Congressman Jimmy Panetta, whose 20th District includes federal land affected by the new orders, had a different opinion. The Salinas Democrat said, “I am disappointed by the decision by the Bureau of Land Management. Not only does it stand in direct opposition to California’s efforts to develop a clean energy economy, it threatens wildlife habitats and could have significant, detrimental impacts on our air and water quality.

“This destructive decision by the administration goes against our community’s wishes to stop fracking, and will not go unchallenged,” Panetta said in a statement. “I will continue to fight this decision and work to ensure the Central Coast of California can continue aggressively pursuing policies that protect the state’s critical natural resources and support a sustainable future.”

BLM said last spring that 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 decision does not authorize any actual drilling for exploration or development of oil and gas resources, and only expands leasing rights on federal land.

Any future proposals for leasing or development would be subject to additional environmental review based on site-specific project information and other requirements for consultation, coordination and public involvement, the BLM said. The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 requires that the BLM hold quarterly lease sales when parcels are available, and to pay the state 50 percent of generated royalties. The BLM estimates that the oil and gas industry on private and public lands directly supports approximately 3,000 jobs and $620 million in tax revenue within the Central Coast Field Office jurisdiction.

California is the sixth largest oil-producing state, providing more than 8 percent of US 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, all 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.

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.

Assemblyman Robert Rivas in May asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to contest the unprecedented increase of oil exploration on public land.

“I will urge California’s attorney general to intervene and file a lawsuit to stop any immediate oil drilling from occurring,” Rivas said this week.

“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. It is entirely inconsistent with state and local law.”

Rivas cites ‘assault’

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

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.

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.

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