A long-running legal battle over federal oil-and-gas leasing in California may be nearing resolution after new findings by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that the oilfield technique known as fracking does not pose undue environmental harm to 1.2 million acres in Kern County and other parts of California.
The findings, contained in an environmental review the BLM's Bakersfield office released late last week, do not automatically open new lands to the controversial well-completion practice also known as hydraulic fracturing.
But if, as expected, the agency moves forward later this fall with a formal decision on the matter, then oil companies could resume bidding for the right to produce petroleum on federal land in areas such as western Kern.
Environmental groups denounced the review's findings as an irresponsible move by the Trump administration at a time when California is working to shrink its carbon footprint.
"If the BLM didn't find impacts from oil drilling and fracking next to schools, under rivers and reservoirs and in habitat that harbors endangered animals, it's because they didn't look," Jeff Kuyper, executive director of the environmental activist group ForestWatch, said in a news release.
Kuyper's group, which was a plaintiff in the 2016 lawsuit that led to the supplemental review, said it may challenge the BLM's latest findings in court.
Industry officials shot back, saying anti-oil activists have greatly exaggerated how much federal land in California is suitable for fracking. One oil trade group also commended the BLM for undertaking a "thoughtful and deliberate review."
"In California, hydraulic fracturing occurs almost exclusively in mature oil fields in remote parts of western Kern County — nowhere near these federal lands, and that's unlikely to change," Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a written statement.
Fracking has taken place in Kern for several decades. It injects water, sand and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals deep underground to free up petroleum deposits.
Environmentalists contend the practice puts groundwater and air quality at risk. But the industry says there is no evidence of such harm in California, where unique geography makes the technique somewhat different from its practice elsewhere in the country.
By the BLM's estimates, oil drilling on federal land in California represents just about 8 percent of the state's total petroleum production. It also said that only about one in five oil wells on federal land in California is fracked.
In undertaking the supplemental review, the BLM looked at fracking's potential effects on air and water, cultural resources, livestock grazing, wildlife, seismicity and social and economic resources.
The agency said its findings relied on studies by the California Council on Science and Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as well as an environmental review by the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department.
The BLM noted that petroleum production on federal land managed by the BLM in Bakersfield sustains about 3,500 jobs and generates $200 million per year in economic benefits. California gets half of the 12.5-percent royalty the BLM collects on oil and gas royalties in the state, while the other half goes to the U.S. Treasury.
"This (supplemental review) effort supports the (Trump) administration's priority of promoting environmentally responsible energy development, while creating jobs and providing economic opportunities for local communities," the BLM stated.
The legal battle over whether to resume federal oil-and-gas lease auctions in California has recently been a focal point for environmental activists in the state. Environmentalists' defeat in this case could lead them to push harder in their campaign for a statewide ban on oil production.
Food & Water Action, an environmental activist group critical of the BLM's findings, said it was calling on the administration of California Gov. Gavin Newsom to halt "all new drilling on state or private land in California" to protect residents from the expansion of oil and gas production in the state.