Fracking leases on 725,000 acres in Central California blocked by judge

A woman protests against fracking in California, in Los Angeles May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
  • Trump administration had approved the land for leasing
  • Follows a recent agreement to take another lot of more than one million acres off the market

(Reuters) - A federal plan to lease over 725,000 acres of Central California land for fracking and oil drilling has been blocked after a federal judge approved a settlement brokered between the Biden administration and environmental groups that sued over the plan.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management agreed in the deal approved Tuesday to take a fresh look at the environmental impacts of the leasing plan, which was approved by the Trump administration in 2019.

The plan would have opened up federal acreage to fossil fuel development across 11 Central Coast and Bay Area counties including in Oakland’s Alameda County, San Benito County and the coastal counties of Monterey and Santa Cruz.

The 2019 lawsuit was filed in California federal court by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, who were later joined by Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. It claimed the federal plan to move forward with development ignored the potential harm from oil and gas extraction on groundwater, the climate and seismic activity.

“Our federal government shouldn’t sell off our precious public lands to be fracked for the fossil fuels driving global warming, so this agreement is a huge relief,” said Liz Jones, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued alongside the Sierra Club and the counties.

The Trump administration issued a resource management plan in 2019 opening up the acreage to fossil fuel development and ending a five-year moratorium on leases in the state.

The BLM hadn’t at that time held a lease sale in California since 2013, when a judge in a separate lawsuit by environmentalists ruled the agency illegally issued leases on a different tract without analyzing the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The agency reached a settlement in August related to lease approvals for an area of more than one million acres northeast of Los Angeles, which was challenged by the state and environmental groups.Tuesday's fossil fuel lease ban coincided with an announcement from the Biden administration that it received more than $400 million in bids from companies seeking to develop offshore wind in the Pacific Ocean as a part of an effort to decarbonize the country's energy system.

BLM didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The case is Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. U.S. Bureau of Land Management et al., United States District Court for the Northern District of California, case No. 3:19-cv-07155.

For the government: Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim and Leilani Doktor of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For the environmental groups and counties: Elizabeth Jones and Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, and Nathan Matthews of the Sierra Club.

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