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Federal Judge in California Orders Fracking Review by BLM

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in central California will now pursue a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) early in its development of resource management plans, based on a decision Tuesday by a U.S. District Court judge for the Central District of California.

The action by Judge Michael Fitzgerald is the first major court ruling for the environmental review of fracking during a federal land-management phase. It was immediately hailed as a victory by environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres ForestWatch, and Earthjustice.

BLM's central California office plans to file its supplemental brief to the judge's ruling by Sept. 21, according to a BLM spokesperson in that office, who noted that there are no pending lease sales that would be affected by the ruling. In the past, BLM has argued that fracking environmental reviews are covered in the later stages of the land-use planning process, such as leasing and permitting.

"We apply a two-phase process to the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] requirement," the BLM spokesperson said.

In his decision, Fitzgerald said the federal agency has an obligation to consider the effects of a widely employed drilling technique like fracking as part of the development of the resource management plan process.

"[BLM's] failure to address the environmental impact of fracking was a flaw 'so obvious' that the plaintiffs [Los Padres ForestWatch] did not need to expressly point it out to preserve their ability to challenge this omission," the judge said in his 27-page decision. Fitzgerald went on to note that fracking and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques have been used in California for more than 50 years.

"The use of fracking has increased dramatically in recent years, and this trend is expected to continue," said Fitzgerald, adding that the practice "raises a number of environmental concerns, including risks of groundwater contamination, seismicity and chemical leaks."

After weighing supplemental briefs from both sides in the case, Fitzgerald said he would issue a separate judgment. He also said the evidence does not support a finding that BLM "abused its discretion or acted unreasonably in balancing the need for oil/gas production with the need to protect the environment" in the decision area of central California involved.

The Center for Biological Diversity's Brendan Cummings, conservation director, called the judge's decision "a huge victory in the fight to protect our water and wildlife from fracking pollution and dangerous drilling."

Cummings called on the Obama administration to "get the message and end this reckless rush to auction off our public land to oil companies."

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