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California Enviros Protest Upcoming BLM Monterey Lease Sale

Three environmental groups in California have filed a formal protest against the federal Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) plans for a September oil/gas lease sale in the Monterey play, alleging that a more thorough environmental assessment (EA) is needed and calling on BLM to zero in on the impact hydraulic fracturing (fracking) might have.

In their joint protest, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Los Padres ForestWatch accused the BLM of "turning a blind eye" to what they called the "dangers of fracking" as it prepares for a Sept. 14 sale of leases in the 2,605-acre federal mineral estate in Monterey and Fresno counties in the central part of the state.

In Monterey County the groups contend that the leasing area includes designated watershed areas that are critical to a regional reservoir. "Despite the sensitivity of this area, the [federal agency's] EA fails to adequately analyze and disclose the grave threats to water quality," according to the 38-page protest.

"By turning a blind eye to the dangers of fracking, BLM is putting Monterey's water quality in serious jeopardy," said Matt Vespa, an attorney for the protesters. "These sensitive areas ought to be protected, not turned into industrial zones."

The protesters cited the possibility of future gas drilling using the fracking technology as a particular concern, calling it "a highly controversial and dangerous drilling method linked to water contamination in other parts of the country." Without any specificity, the groups called out "recent reports" that refer to more than "1,000 documented cases" of groundwater contamination tied to fracking -- either through fluids and methane leaking into groundwater or through above-ground spills.

A bill in the California legislature (AB 591) that would require public disclosure of various chemicals used in fracking has passed out of the lower house Assembly and has passed several hurdles in the Senate. It awaits further action in the Senate when the legislature returns from its summer recess next month (see Shale Daily, July 12).

Industry sources have continued to oppose the fracking measure unless it is amended, but a spokesperson for the measure's prime legislative supporter, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, indicated earlier this month that discussions are ongoing with the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and the California Independent Petroleum Association. The spokesperson has indicated that the organizations are getting very close to being able to support Wieckowski's bill.

Earlier in the month WSPA's Tupper Hull told the Los Angeles Times that people are misinformed about fracking in California. He called it "quite different from other practices," citing the difference between drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale in the East and crude oil drilling in the West.

On Monday, Hull told NGI that his group was monitoring the situation, but not currently planning to take any action in response to the protest. "Historically, WSPA has not engaged in the lease sales of BLM or any other agency," he said, noting that could change if enough members wanted to weigh in.

Compared to large natural gas operations in the Marcellus, Hull called the California operations "smaller, single operations that don't involve enormous amounts of water," as quoted in the Times report.

The environmental groups are adamant about BLM not covering enough of what they consider to be significant issues, including what they call the "significant amounts of methane," or greenhouse gas emissions, associated with oil and gas development. The groups contend there are "many cost-saving" ways to control methane leakage in the oil/gas exploration and production process.

"Because the EA fails to disclose and take a hard look at the environmental consequences of the lease sale and fails to consider reasonable alternatives, BLM must withdraw the EA and prepare a valid environmental review that complies with NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act]," the protest said.

"In the event that BLM rejects this request and issues the leases, we request that BLM suspend all activities and operations pertaining to those leases, pending resolution of any litigation," the groups said, asking that BLM advise prospective lessees that the sale is "under protest and will likely be subject to litigation."

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