California Sues Federal Government Over Central Valley Drilling Proposal

Rigs just south of town extract oil at sunrise on July 22, 2008 in Taft, California.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

California on Friday officially challenged a Trump administration plan to open up more than a million acres of public land in the state to fossil fuel development.

In December, the Bureau of Land Management finalized a fracking and drilling plan that spans eight counties in Central California, ending a federal moratorium on new leases in the state. The proposal includes land in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura Counties.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the federal plan “half-baked” and “misguided” and says it conflicts with California policy of reducing emissions of planet- warming gases 40% by 2030.

“One of the big concerns is this would set us back in our goals to address emissions of greenhouse gases,” Becerra said. “But it goes far beyond that. This is an issue of health.”

The lawsuit is the latest action in California’s ongoing fight with the Trump administration over energy and climate policy. The state is aggressively scaling back fossil fuel extraction, increasing oversight of drilling operations and pursuing ambitious climate targets. At the same time, the Trump administration is seeking to expand drilling on public land.

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“You're talking about a million acres in California, federal public land, that this administration wants to open up to a process which is now substantiated to pose lots of risks,” Becerra said. “When you try to move forward with the plan that you didn't run through the process properly, according to the law — whether it's the environmental law, or our procedures law — we're going to take action.”

California contends that more drilling will damage ecologically sensitive areas and endanger millions of Californians by contributing additional pollution in places already choked by dirty air.

Becerra said that the risks to the state are too high to ignore. “One in every four children in the Central Valley suffers from asthma,” he said. “And all the issues that would confound our ability to protect the health of residents in the state are involved. It's not just the risk of asthma, but heart disease, lung disease, cancer, all those things go up.”

Becerra says the plan is based on “incorrect assumptions” about the amount of fracking that could take place on public lands, and that energy companies have shown little to no interest in the locations proposed, a point on which industry experts agree.

A spokeswoman for the BLM’s Central California District, Serena Baker, said in an emailed statement that the bureau received a copy of the lawsuit and is reviewing it. The agency’s environmental analysis relied on the best available science, she said.

She added that the environmental impact of any new drilling project would be “addressed at the site or project-specific level in subsequent tiered environmental analysis.”

“BLM manages less than 10% of oil and gas operations in California with the state managing the remaining 90%,” she said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom co-signed the lawsuit, which the state filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, along with the California Air Resources Board, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California Department of Water Resources.

In October, BLM released a separate plan that opened up nearly 800,000 acres of the state’s Central Coast plus land in Alameda and Contra Costa counties for gas and oil extraction. California has not sued the agency over this plan, but conservation groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, have filed suit over both drilling plans.

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