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Obama Administration Halts New Oil, Gas Drilling in California's Los Padres National Forest

In a move by the Obama administration to suspend pending litigation from conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is halting new oil and natural gas leasing throughout the Los Padres National Forest in the southern half of California.

The agency's move prompted a federal court last Tuesday to stay ongoing litigation against USFS, allowing the Forest Service to reportedly assess the risks of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and drilling in the California forest to air and water quality and endangered animals, such as the California condor.

USFS suspended its leasing plan in response to a notice of intent in October to sue from the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch and Defenders of Wildlife. That notice was accompanied by a letter detailing what was said to be significant new information about fracking and oil development, not known when the agency approved the plan more than a decade ago.

The leasing suspension places a hold on a decade-long legal battle initiated by the conservation groups to protect public lands slated for oil development. The agency agreed to suspend its 2005 decision that allowed the prospect for expanded oil and gas leasing and development throughout the forest.

The Forest Service’s suspension of oil/gas leasing will allow officials to complete additional environmental review and consult with federal wildlife biologists under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to stakeholders. The stay will remain in effect while the agency considers a host of new information on more advanced fracking technology that was virtually unknown at the time of the 2005 plan, along with climate change and regional drought that environmental advocates contend could lead to greater harms to water/air quality, ESA-protected species and their habitats.

In a related action, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its August biological opinion that would have allowed leasing to go forward in the Los Padres National Forest despite what are characterized as significant risks to California condors and other endangered wildlife.

"Expanded oil and gas operations -- including fracking -- would further industrialize public lands, cause climate pollution, harm endangered species like steelhead trout and California condor, and threaten to pollute water supplies amidst the state’s historic drought," environmental critics contend.

“The Los Padres National Forest attracts millions of visitors each year to enjoy a wide range of outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. "We are thrilled that the Forest Service recognizes the need to hit the pause button and reevaluate whether it is worth it to auction off these treasured landscapes to the highest bidder.”

USFS's decision follows several other environmental victories related to oil and gas along California’s central coast. In a separate court ruling in September, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management’s Bakersfield office violated the law when it adopted a plan to allow oil and gas operations across millions of acres of public lands, including those in the Los Padres, without considering the environmental risks of fracking. Similarly, in 2013 a federal judge ruled that the agency violated the law when it issued oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental risks of fracking.

Environmental groups previously challenged the 2005 Los Padres leasing plan for failing to fully analyze impacts of oil and gas operations under the National Environmental Policy Act, following the USFS approving an expansion of oil/gas leasing activities on the Los Padres forest lands. The action opened more than 52,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to new oil and gas development, including more than 4,200 acres that could be affected by new infrastructure.

In response to a 2007 lawsuit, USFS agreed to revise its analysis of the plan's impacts on endangered species. The parties agreed to stay the lawsuit until the new analysis was completed and a new biological opinion was issued last August.

In October, the environmental groups provided a notice to the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service that the project still failed to comply with the ESA because it would hurt wildlife, including the imperiled California condor and numerous other species that are listed under the act. In addition, the groups provided what they called "significant new information" that showed that the 2005 decision and environmental review were woefully outdated and urged that no new leasing proceed without additional updated environmental review.

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