Kern's oil industry took a pass Tuesday on a public hearing focused on the environmental impacts of fracking, handing the day to dozens of anti-oil activists who convened in downtown Bakersfield to rail against the technique and the threat of climate change.

Unlike in past regulatory proceedings at the same venue — the chambers of the county Board of Supervisors, where hundreds of oil workers have shown their support, with some speaking up in support of industry practices — very few people representing the industry turned out Tuesday at the 6 p.m. hearing hosted by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

But Central Valley environmentalists did show up, many of them bused in from as far north as Merced. Organizers staged a press event before the hearing and many spoke forcefully against the BLM's assessment that fracking, the well-completion technique also known as hydraulic fracturing, poses minimal health and environmental impacts on the area under consideration.

One of the few pro-oil activists who did take the podium Tuesday, Gabriela Gonzalez, said her group, Kern Citizens for Energy, opted against asking large numbers of supporters to turn out in part because no decision was scheduled to be made at the meeting.

"We'd rather send in our comments in writing," she said, noting the BLM had announced none of the comments made at the hearing would be entered into the official record.

The event was one of three hearings the BLM is hosting as part of its plan to reopen federal land in California to oil production. The proposal covers 400,000 acres of public land, plus 1.2 million additional acres of federal mineral estate, across Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties.

The agency stopped leasing federal land for oil production when, in 2014, it was sued by environmental groups who argued successfully that the BLM had not fully taken into account the various impacts of fracking.

Fracking injects sand, large amounts of water and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to break up rock formations and release oil. Environmentalists contend the process has the potential to pollute groundwater and cause seismic activity.

The BLM's draft environmental review at issue Tuesday found the technique's direct and indirect impacts on greenhouse gas emissions would be minor. Effects on surface water would be negligible because of existing regulations, it said, while the level of fracking activity envisioned by the agency would have a negligible impact on groundwater. (Here is a link to the draft environmental review.)

A lawyer with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups whose lawsuit halted oil and gas leases in the area covered by the study, said the draft review greatly underestimated the number of frack jobs expected to take place on the federal property. The review said only between zero and four frack jobs would occur in the area each year.

She and others spoke of fracking and oil and gas leasing in dire terms.

"We simply cannot drill any oil and gas wells if we want to avert climate catastrophes," said the lawyer, Maya Golden-Krasner.

Don Nelson, a Bakersfield petroleum engineer who spoke at the hearing attended by some 125 people, complimented the BLM for what he called a thorough report. He said activists were wrong to blame fracking for seismic activity and posed the question of how many people in attendance drive petroleum-fueled vehicles.

"Who's ready to walk back to Fresno?" he asked. The question elicited a raucous response as audience members shouted "Yeah!" and "Electric vehicles!"

Gabriel Garcia, field manager of the BLM's Bakersfield office, said about 4,000 people have filed comments about the 174-page draft. The public comment period closes June 10.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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