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California's De Facto Drilling Moratorium Continues as BLM Agrees to Rewrite RMP

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management agreed last week to rewrite a resource management plan for a large swath of California public lands, effectively barring any new oil and natural gas leasing for at least a year.

The agreement, reached last Wednesday by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, continues a moratorium imposed in 2013 on auctioning public lands for oil and gas development (Center for Biological Diversity et al, v.BLM et al, No. 2:15-cf04378).

BLM's initial resource management plan (RMP) allowed leasing in the Central Valley and the southern Sierra Nevada, as well as in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Los Padres ForestWatch, represented by Earthjustice, challenged BLM's RMP for Bakersfield in the Central Valley in June 2015. BLM had issued a record of decision (ROD) and final environmental impact statement (EIS). However, the plaintiffs claimed BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Judge Michael Fitzgerald, who also oversaw last week's settlement, last September had ordered BLM to pursue a supplemental EIS to include potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and drilling on groundwater quality and public health/environmental concerns as the state RMPs were developed. The new settlement details BLM's obligations to comply with Fitzgerald's September 2016 court order.

"This is a big victory for California and a major blow to President Trump's efforts to turn our public lands over to oil companies," said CBD conservation director Brendan Cummings. "Despite the petroleum industry's stranglehold on the White House, these beautiful wild places are still off limits to drilling and fracking. That protects our water, wildlife and climate from fracking pollution."

Under the agreement, BLM is required to rework the affected RMP and prepare a supplemental EIS that corrects NEPA violations. The revamped plan has to consider available information on the potential impact of drilling on groundwater quality and public health and environmental concerns related to chemicals used in stimulation activities such as fracking.

BLM also agreed to not hold any lease sales within the Bakersfield RMP in the Central Valley until a new ROD is issued.

The new settlement continues a de facto oil and gas leasing moratorium.

BLM has not held any leases sale in California since 2013, when a court ruled that the agency had violated NEPA by issuing oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental dangers of fracking. The CBD, Los Padres ForestWatch and Sierra Club in 2011 protested BLM's Monterey lease sale, alleging that a more thorough environmental assessment was needed and specifically citing the potential impacts of fracking.

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