To stop Trump fracking plans, California is going to court

Oil pumps and drilling equipment in an oilfield in Kern County.
Oil pumps and drilling equipment in an oilfield in Kern County, where the majority of California’s oil and gas production is centered.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

California took legal action Friday to block the Trump administration’s plans to open federal lands in California to oil and gas drilling, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing.

The federal lawsuit announced by state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra comes after President Trump’s administration announced details of its plan to open more than a million acres of public and private land in California to fracking, ending a five-year moratorium on leasing federal land in California to oil and gas developers.

“We are suing the Trump administration, once again, for acting as if they are above the law,” Becerra said during a news conference at his Sacramento office Friday morning. “Much of the federal oil and gas activity in the state happens near some of our most vulnerable communities, communities [that] are already disproportionately exposed to pollution and its health effects. Adding more fracking to the equation would only make things worse.”

The lawsuit alleges that the federal Bureau of Land Management’s final environmental impact statement, approved in December, violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act because it fails to consider the danger posed to people who might live near the oil and gas wells and underestimated the number of fracking wells that could become active on the federal land.


“They shortchanged the people, they shortchanged the law, they shortchanged the science, when it came to their analysis,” Becerra said.

Officials at the BLM’s California office were not available for comment.

Along with the attorney general, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Trump administration include Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Air Resources Board, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Water Resources.

Environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal court earlier this week, citing the threat to public health and potential damage to recreational areas caused by fracking.

“Californians won’t allow the oil industry to pollute our air and water and cripple our efforts to fight climate change,” Clare Lakewood, legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement released Friday. The organization was among the plaintiffs that filed the earlier lawsuit.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., said the BLM’s review process followed federal law and the scientific studies involved took place under the Obama and Trump administrations.

“While these legal actions play out, we are focused on how the people of our industry are working and innovating to provide reliable, safe and affordable fuels and energy to our state,” Reheis-Boyd said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose Bakersfield district is in the heart of California oil country, called the lawsuit a “stunt” that will adversely affect people with well-paying oilfield jobs in the Central Valley and across the state.


“The oil and gas industry annually contributes over 350,000 jobs to California’s economy, many of which come from the Central Valley and Kern County. Our citizens already pay exorbitant amounts at the pump, and today’s announcement will block responsible energy development, making California an even more expensive place to live,” McCarthy said in a statement.

In an attempt to undercut the president’s plan, Newsom and the state Legislature put in place a new law last year prohibiting oil pipelines or other essential infrastructure from crossing state lands.

Trump’s plan targets public and private land spread across eight counties in Central California: eastern Fresno, western Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura. Some of the parcels outlined in the plan are next to Los Padres National Forest, Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Wind Wolves Preserve.

In November, Newsom stopped the approval of new hydraulic fracturing in the state until the permits for those projects can be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists. The Democrat also imposed a moratorium on new permits for steam-injected oil drilling, another extraction method opposed by environmentalists that was linked to a massive petroleum spill in Kern County over the summer.

Hydraulic fracturing involves shooting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract oil and natural gas. Cyclic steam injection pumps superheated vapor into wells to loosen and liquefy viscous crude oil.

Newsom’s announcement was hailed by environmental and conservation groups that have been urging the governor to ban new oil and gas drilling and completely phase out fossil fuel extraction in California, one of the nation’s top petroleum-producing states.

The petroleum industry criticized Newsom’s action, saying California already has some of the most strict regulations and environmental protections in the world and that curtailing oil production in the state will have serious economic consequences.

California has filed more than 65 lawsuits over Trump administration actions on a variety of issues, including more than two dozen challenges to policies proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for setting energy and fuel-efficiency standards.