July 19, 2011
Environmental groups filed a formal protest this week with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management calling for a halt to the leasing of 2,600-acres in California’s Fresno and Monterey counties for oil and gas shale exploration. They said future drilling would likely involve high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a new drilling method linked to water contamination in other parts of the country.
“It seemed to us the BLM was lowballing these areas to sale given current economic conditions,” said Matt Vespa, an attorney at the Center of Biological Diversity.
The BLM’s environmental assessment failed to “take a hard look at the environmental consequences” of fracking. The assessment used historical data from the past 20 years that is not up to date on the new process, Vespa said.
The shale is near the San Antonio reservoir watershed and the area is home to threatened wildlife, the San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard.
Besides the Center for Biological Diversity, the formal protest was signed by the Sierra Club and Los Padres ForestWatch. The coalition is requesting a thorough review of potential effects of fracking and proposed alternatives. It is asking the BLM to cancel the sale scheduled for September, when interested oil companies can bid on the land.
David Christy, spokesman for the BLM, said the department is reviewing the formal protest and has no immediate comment.
Tupper Hull, spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Assn., said people are misinformed about fracking in California. “Hydrualic fracking in California is quite different from other practices,” Hull said, pointing out that companies drill for gas in the Marcellus shale, on the East Coast, whereas West Coast operations drill for crude oil.
“Natural gas generated in the Marcellus shale region involves large operations,” Hull said. “In California they’re smaller, single operations, they don’t involve enormous amounts of water, they’re not ongoing, and often times the wells are only used once.”
Environmental groups say fracking, which involves injecting rock formations with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to release tightly-packed hydrocarbons, can result in the leaking of toxic fluids and methane into groundwater, as well as above-ground wastewater spills. The airborne release of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is a major concern with fracking.
“We need to protect our water, air and communities from this potentially harmful drilling,” said Rita Dalessio of the Sierra Club’s Ventana Chapter conservation committee. “Drilling should not come with the sacrifice of our beautiful California landscapes and certainly not our health.”
EarthJustice, an Oakland-based environmental law firm, estimates that 70 hydraulic fracturing accidents have occured in recent years, the majority in the Marcellus Shale — the biggest gas fracking area in the U.S., which includes parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Earlier this year, Chesapeake Energy equipment erupted in flames outside Philadelphia, and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a trout stream, forcing seven families to evacuate their homes.
Several U.S. states have moved to regulate fracking more strictly and to require disclosure of chemicals. France became the first country to ban fracking earlier this month.
The coalition brought its concerns to the BLM after the assessment was released in April. “They basically ignored all our concerns,” Vespa said, adding that if the agency does not respond to environmentalists’ concerns by September, “we can go to court.”.