In a case similar to other legal actions going back four years, U.S. Justice Department attorneys recently filed a court response defending a resource plan for drilling on federal lands throughout central California, disputing allegations made by EarthJustice, the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch.

Led by an EarthJustice lawsuit filed last June, the environmental groups challenged in federal court the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) resource management plan (RMP), which would allow oil/natural gas development on up to 1 million acres of public lands and mineral rights. The groups allege it will open more of California's federal lands to hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

EarthJustice attorneys cited a federal judge's 2013 ruling that said BLM had violated the law when it issued oil leases in Monterey County without considering the environmental risks of fracking (see Shale DailyJuly 27, 2011). In the June 10 legal action, the groups allege that BLM  failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives and failed to adequately analyze and disclose the impacts of fracking on air quality, water and wildlife.

Justice Department attorneys countered this in their legal response filed Aug. 31 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, repeatedly labeling the environmental attorneys' allegations as "vague and ambiguous." In cases where the groups alleged violations of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the federal attorneys contend the allegations have mischaracterized the federal law.

They asked the federal court in California to dismiss the case "with prejudice" and to give the federal agencies "such other and further relief as the court may [decide] is just and proper."

Regardless of the outcome of this case, as with earlier ones by the same groups, they contend that the oil/gas industry has designated public lands in the central part of California as "ground zero for drilling" while BLM is "ignoring the elephant in the room by opening millions of federal acres." EarthJustice attorney Tamara Zakim said BLM "should not make planning decisions that facilitate the expansion of fracking activities."

Zakim said BLM is "turning its back on the dirty realities Californians face from [its RMP plan]."

The groups are sounding an alarm about protecting clean water and the landscape from what "the grave risks" of fracking on lands they consider public treasures between the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the central coast.

Justice Department attorneys argued that the content of the BLM final environmental impact statement on the RMP is the "best evidence" to refute the environmental groups' allegations.