Legal challenge to oil, gas drilling on Calif. public lands advanced

— Conservation organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seeking to halt the unlawful drilling of multiple oil and gas wells in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The agency rushed the approval of the well permits in the Mount Poso oil field near Bakersfield without allowing input from the public and nearby communities, as required by federal law.

The groups argue that BLM failed to comply with multiple laws requiring the agency to consider the cumulative, harmful impacts this drilling will have on air quality, water, climate, and environmental justice in one of the most polluted areas of the country. To date, BLM has never examined the overall harms caused by its permitting decisions in the San Joaquin Valley, yet continues to approve new drilling activity.

Earthjustice is representing The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Earth, Center for Biological Diversity, and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The groups are asking the Court to pause drilling at the sites associated with the permits BLM recently issued, pending resolution of this case and BLM’s compliance with federal laws, including: the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Mineral Leasing Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.

“BLM’s reckless disregard for public health and the environment violates multiple federal laws meant to prevent these exact harms. Its blatant attempt to withhold its decision-making from public scrutiny further adds insult to injury for residents in the San Joaquin Valley, who cannot afford any more pollution in their communities,” said Radhika Kannan, Earthjustice attorney. “The San Joaquin Valley is the most polluted air basin in the country, and oil and gas production is a major contributor. BLM is not above the law and must answer to the local communities where residents experience the most asthma-related emergency room visits, heart attacks, and low birth-weight infants in the State of California.”

“We have done everything we can to warn the Biden administration of the myriad environmental and socio-economic risks associated with more drilling in Kern County,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for Friends of the Earth. “We were deeply disappointed to see these permits granted, and the only option we have left is this lawsuit. It is our hope that the Court sees the clear violations of federal law and pumps the brakes before irreversible damage occurs.”

“At every step, the BLM has failed to evaluate how these projects heat the climate, guzzle water, and add to some of the dirtiest air in the country,” said Liz Jones, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It’s an appalling violation of our nation’s environmental laws to pretend that new drilling won’t make the Central Valley’s pollution problems worse.”

“Residents and activists in the Central Valley work every day to make their communities healthy. The last thing they need is for the BLM to threaten their air and water by unlawfully approving more oil and gas drilling in their backyards,” said Ben Tettlebaum, Director and Senior Staff Attorney with The Wilderness Society. “BLM’s oil and gas permitting process is broken. Its practice of rubber-stamping applications in the shadows without public input and failing to consider the cumulative air, water, climate, and environmental justice impacts is far too common — and it’s also illegal. BLM must commit to an open, lawful permitting process that stays true to the Biden administration’s commitment to prioritize local communities and environmental justice.”

“BLM is playing with numbers to hide dangerous air pollution from oil drilling in the San Joaquin Valley,” said David Pettit, a senior attorney at NRDC. “This is bad science and bad policy. It has to stop.”

This lawsuit builds on earlier litigation filed by Earthjustice on behalf of these groups that successfully challenged BLM’s failure to analyze the cumulative harms of oil and gas development in Central California. Pursuant to settlement agreements filed in summer 2022, BLM has agreed to complete a proper environmental review for the region. Yet the agency has continued to approve new drilling without the benefit of that analysis. As a result, beginning in 2022, a coalition of local community organizations and national groups submitted extensive comments to BLM documenting how its Bakersfield Field Office routinely issues permits in violation of multiple federal laws and without evaluating the impacts to air quality, water quality and scarcity, climate change, local species, or public health, all while denying nearby communities an opportunity to review and comment on the permits.

* “Lawsuit Challenges Oil and Gas Drilling on California Public Lands,” Jun. 22, 2023 Earthjustice press release.

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