Housing / Land Use

Fracking opponents, BLM talk future oil and gas leases in county

BLM pitches plans to lease public lands for gas and oil exploration as anti-fracking protesters argue for local control

While a mild-mannered band of fracking protesters congregated outside San Juan Oaks Golf Club on March 15, inside, a far larger group of uniformed and non-uniformed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel were preparing to give their third presentation to lay out potential oil and gas leasing scenarios for more than 793,000 acres of public lands. Previously, they gave the same presentation in Coalinga and at Ft. Ord.

BLM was in the process of preparing a Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement (RMPA/EIS) to analyze the effects of alternative oil and gas management approaches. The amendment was to the 2007 Resource Management Plan for the Southern Diablo Mountain Range and Central Coast of California. Its purpose is to determine which BLM-managed lands or subsurface federal minerals are open or closed to oil and gas leasing and which restrictions apply to protect specific resources.

Sky Murphy, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM Central Coast field office, as well as the project manager of the presentation, tried to make it clear that the amendment would not authorize any actual drilling for exploration or development of oil and gas resources. The protesters, who had moved inside for the meeting along with their signs, weren’t buying that explanation. They waited quietly as Murphy explained what BLM was trying to do and then 20 people had four minutes each to speak their minds.

Murphy said his primary responsibility was to ensure that BLM’s decisions comply with environmental laws. He said the meeting was being held to raise public awareness about BLM plans and to give them the opportunity to comment. He maneuvered around a question from BenitoLink about just how much weight, if any, public comments would bear on the writing of the amendment. He did say, however, that the comments would be published in a final environmental impact statement (EIS). Later, though, during the meeting, it became clear that anyone who commented would also have to submit those comments in writing to BLM by April 6 in order for them to be taken into consideration.

“There will be a BLM response in the final EIS,” Murphy said. “We’re at the draft stage, so we have a way to go before we have a final plan that responds to those comments in a meaningful way to show they were addressed and that the decision was either modified or preserved in a way that their issues were resolved.”

Ultimately, Murphy said any decisions that BLM makes will be scrutinized by the courts and elected officials in local communities. The protestors, along with San Benito County Supervisors Anthony Botelho and Jerry Muenzer, were there to tell BLM that county voters had already made their choice clear by passing with a majority Measure J, which prevents fracking and other non-conventional oil and gas drilling and extraction methods. More than one person questioned why, if Measures J and Z were passed, was BLM trying to make an end-run around the people’s decision.

During his presentation, Murphy told the audience that BLM developed what it called the Reasonable Foreseeable Development (RFD) Scenario that considered current and future use of well stimulation technologies, including hydraulic fracturing, acid matrix stimulation and acid fracturing, as well as future uses of enhanced oil recovery. He said the planning area under discussion involved 6.8 million acres that included 793,000 acres of federal minerals. The lands under consideration involved split-estate (privately-owned property with mineral rights belonging to the federal government) and public lands administered by BLM.

In the back of the room were five large maps depicting five proposed land-use scenarios. To many of the protestors looking them over, it was akin to choosing which one was less worse than the other four. Since all were apparently supporters of Measure J, none of the alternatives were acceptable to them.

Larry Rebecchi, who voiced his opposition the day before at the San Benito County Board of Supervisors' meeting, was first to speak. He said he did not realize there were going to be five alternatives, but quipped whichever one fell within the parameters of Measure J was the one the crowd wanted.

“We have spoken and we hope BLM will go back and review Measure J,” he said, commenting about BLM’s mission statement that specified it was to protect the use and enjoyment of public lands in the present and future. “This was our concern when we developed Measure J. What’s going to happen to the environment in the future?”

Seth Capron said BLM should honor county voters’ decision to support the fracking ban spelled out in Measure J. He said the oil typically found in the county is thick and large amounts of steam are needed to extract it. He asked BLM to examine the amount of energy used to pump the oil and also explained the oil is higher in released carbon than other oils. He also said it did not makes sense to use split-estate lands because of the negative effects on the property owners.

Andres Sheikh pointed out that four counties had voted against fracking: San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Alameda. He said BLM should not release any new lands for oil and gas exploration leases because it would be a detriment not only for the environment, but the species that live within it.

Ash Lauth, a clean energy campaigner with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity — which she said has more than 25,000 members in the area that includes the land being discussed — said BLM should cancel all current and future lease proposals.

“BLM did not consider an alternative that would halt oil and gas development to protect our environment, our public health and our safety,” she said. “This plan would put California groundwater at risk. The EIS notes that approximately five million gallons of water is typically required for both exploratory drilling and hydraulic fracture stimulation in the Monterey formation.”

Lauth went on to say that between 125 and 175 wells in California are fracked each month and the amount of water used could harm federally-listed wildlife that live within the boundaries of the oil and gas operations. She also noted that groundwater is going to be more valuable in the future.

“For BLM to be rubber-stamping these leases to give away groundwater to the oil industry is short-sighted,” she said. “Fracking contributes to climate change, dryer conditions, and the impacts of this decision must be analyzed in the context of increasing water scarcity due to climate change and drought.”

Paul Hain, a local organic walnut grower, asked that BLM respect local ordinances.

“Statistically, about 10 percent of all wells fail,” he added. “Under enhanced stimulation technologies, that percentage increases. We can doubt science, but engineers fail and the Earth is in control. My main concern is water resources. We have an increasing population and demands on water supplies, so it’s imperative that we protect those. We can’t pollute tens of thousands of gallons of water and simply dispose it back into the earth. That isn’t sustainable.”

Eighth-grader Angel Leal said that in 2014 her family worked with volunteers to pass Measure J.

“The people in our community decided to pass that measure because we wanted to protect our water, health and our future,” she said. “I was proud to be part of that movement. I hope the BLM respects the decision our community made and not allow oil and gas companies to pollute here.”

Botelho said he was speaking on behalf of the entire board of supervisors and hoped that BLM was not only a responsible steward, but also a partner in choices concerning federal lands.

“Being that San Benito County voted for no fracking, we expect no fracking,” he said and suggested that BLM might be moving too fast. “We hope that we can work together and see what your plans are. We’re deeply concerned about the water and the impact that oil and gas extraction has on ranchers and the roads. Let’s not make the same mistakes made in the past. There used to be an old mercury mine (New Idria) in South County, and now they’re finding mercury in San Francisco Bay. We don’t need to find fracking fluids in San Francisco Bay, or worse, in San Benito County and our valuable ag land.”

Muenzer reminded the BLM personnel that when the bureau decided to close the Clear Creek Management Area in south San Benito County, people tried to tell BLM that the area had been used for more than 50 years without anyone becoming ill from asbestos.

“You did not listen to us, so we went to Washington and fought you again there trying to get Congress to enact legislation to open up Clear Creek for recreation,” he said. “I’m asking you this time to please listen to us. Do not open up the BLM land in our area for enhanced oil drilling.”

Written comments will be most effective if they are specific to the proposal or analysis and are received by April 6, 2017. Comments may be submitted by email to [email protected] or by mail to Bureau of Land Management, California State Office, CCFO O&G Leasing DEIS Comments, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, CA 95825.

For more information about the Draft RMP Amendment/Draft EIS or for a copy of the document, visit the BLM’s ePlanning website at https://eplanning.blm.gov.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]