Recent expansions in the use of hydraulic fracturing—known colloquially as fracking—by oil operators transformed the discussion of what was once a little-understood exploration practice into a heated national debate. Now, opponents of fracking want federal land managers to adapt their practices to this new industrial and political climate when approving leases to drill for oil on public lands.
The local wing of that movement earned a legal victory on March 8 in a San Jose federal court. U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal put the brakes on plans by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow oil operators to drill exploratory wells on 2,500 federal acres in southern Monterey County.
If those operators had struck oil, they would likely have drilled new wells to be fracked. An operator fracks a well by pumping tens of thousands of gallons of chemically treated water into the ground to loosen up deposits embedded within the rock.
Grewal ruled that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it summarily relied on reports compiled by the agency in 2006 to support a late 2011 decision to allow drilling. NEPA requires that agencies conduct an in-depth project review when a federal decision is likely to cause significant environmental effects.
“BLM’s dismissal of any development scenario involving fracking as ‘outside it’s jurisdiction’ simply did not provide the ‘hard look’ at the issue that NEPA requires,” Grewal wrote.
The BLM lands in question occupy the northern tip of an oil deposit known as the Monterey Shale, which runs under vast expanses of the Central Coast. Environmentalists recently discovered lessees fracking existing Monterey Shale oil wells in the Los Padres National Forest. NEPA only impacts the provision of new oil leases by the federal government.
Plaintiffs in the case, the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, complained that the 2006 reports contemplated a world where fracking for deep mineral resources still proved uneconomical. Grewal agreed that approval of the same exploratory wells today might very well reveal marketable deposits, the inevitable exploitation of which would threaten significant environmental impacts.
“The general assumption of that time was that there would be very little industrial activity in the area because there’s not much oil and it’s hard to get,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Brendan Cummings said. “Whether or not that was reasonable in ’06, it’s clearly not reasonable today.”
BLM Deputy State Director Doran Sanchez explained that the agency will release a statement once its staff gets an opportunity to review Grewal’s opinion, which the parties received one day before New Times’ press deadline.
The Center for Biological Diversity’s complaint also asserted violations to the Mineral Leasing Act, but Grewal declined to address those claims in the recent summary judgment order. According to Cummings, those issues would only go to trial after the agency addresses its NEPA deficiencies.
Cummings added that the group will insist upon BLM publishing the most comprehensive type of assessment under the law, known as an Environmental Impact Statement.