The Trump administration has recently re-introduced plans to lease hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in central California to oil and gas developers, ending a five-year moratorium on such practices and opening the door for hydraulic fracking on public lands.

 Policy Summary: 

The Trump administration has recently re-introduced plans to lease hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in central California to oil and gas developers, ending a five-year moratorium on such practices and opening the door for hydraulic fracking on public lands. The aforementioned moratorium was put in place by federal courts in 2013 when the Obama administration tried to allow similar leasing, with the judge in question citing that such practices should not be allowed until the environmental risks of fracking were better understood.

Trump’s plan aims to open both public lands and mineral estates stretching across eight counties in Central California to oil and gas drilling; totaling more than 700,000 acres. The administration has argued that the negative impacts on air quality, wildlife, Native American resources, and surrounding communities can be prevented or greatly minimized. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is a division of the Department of the Interior, approved Trump’s oil and gas preliminary exploration plan supporting  the administration’s objective of establishing domestic independence from foreign energy sources.

The BLM is critical to Trump’s leasing plan because under split-estate parcels, it possesses the underground mineral rights of certain properties while private entities own the surface. When it made the recommended leasing plan available to the public, the BLM received more than four hundred objections over the thirty-day protest period, but officials say that none of them were valid. Moving forward, the agency is set to begin collecting decisions from energy companies on which parcels of land they wish to lease and then arrange lease auctions.

In terms of defending Trump’s leasing plan, the BLM posits that the fossil fuel industry supports 3,000 jobs and produces $623 million in tax revenue within the counties in question. California oil production has progressively declined over the past thirty years, and Trump made American energy independence a cornerstone of his campaign, calling for an increase in domestic drilling. He has tried to lift environmental regulations on federal lands across the country beginning in 2018, which has pitted him against Californian politicians who are looking to a greener future rather than one driven by oil and gas.

Californians point out that the maps included in the BLM report, which show areas where fracking leases could be most productive, center around land that borders national parks and national forests. The Western Energy Alliance, a coalition of private oil and gas companies, have released a statement saying that these areas are not actually national parks but wilderness areas that were already approved by the Obama administration for controlled drilling. 

Hydraulic fracking is the process of fracturing rock to allow pressurized oil and natural gas to be collected near the surface for extraction. Primary concerns surrounding the practice of fracking are its negative impacts upon air quality, water quality, the quantity of water used, seismicity, and effects upon surrounding wildlife.

Supporters of Trump’s leasing plan, which are mainly oil and gas companies, say that limiting Californian oil production will cause an increase in oil imports from other states that do not have California’s stringent regulations and environmental protections. They also posit that quashing the leasing plan will increase domestic demand for foreign oil, eradicate jobs in California’s oil and gas industry, and will bring no environmental benefits.

However, environmentalists argue that opening wilderness areas to drilling and fracking will increase pollutants and increase disease among Californian citizens, do irreparable harm to endangered species, and increase climate change. Central California is cited as having some of the worst air quality in the nation and it is said that drilling and fracking will only make this worse. California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, claims that the plan is a misuse of national power. It is pointed out that the national parks, although they may not be the areas where the fracking and drilling is directly occurring, would experience worse air quality due to proximity and that pollution would create health threats to both visitors and the flora and fauna within the parks. Of particular concern are the properties near both public and private schools, parcels next to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, and an area in Point Mugu State Park. Yosemite and Sequoia National Park are also on the map, with the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains being under threat as well. Fracking also poses more risks than drilling, with dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons such as xylene being released and an increased ejection of ground-level ozone which causes respiratory problems.

The BLM report says that the proposed fracking wells may necessitate the annual use of eighty million gallons of water, which is morally dubious due to the fact that many citizens in central California currently experience drinking water scarcities. Fracking also involves the use of chemicals linked to cancer such as naphthalene, trimethylbenzene, and methanol, with much of the proposed properties up for lease being on or near groundwater catchments that supply drinking water to both residential, urban, and agricultural areas.

Although the Trump administration may be right in that opening public lands to oil and gas development will increase economic growth in the short-term, it would appear to have little positive impact in the long-term. Oil production is already declining in California and has been for decades, and fossil fuels are projected to become more expensive as alternative fuel sources and technologies become less expensive and more efficient. The U.S. must lead the way towards a more sustainable future and leave behind artifacts of industrial, fossil fuel-driven capitalism that no longer suit the realities of climate change. In addition, fracking and drilling near national parks and drinking water supplies is incredibly damaging and short-sighted. It threatens the last remaining habitats for many species, endangers visiting citizens, and poisons the most necessary resource for society’s survival: water.

Engagement Resources: 

  • Center for Biological Diversity – involved in extensive anti-fracking policy and the proliferation of the natural world.
  • Sierra Club – has launched a campaign against the BLM proposed leasing plan.
  • Climate Reality Project – have local chapters throughout California resisting pro-fracking and anti-environmentalist policies.

Photo by unsplash-logoZbynek Burival

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