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April 10, 2013

Landmark Court Victory Against Fracking in California

Fracking-padsFracking pads in Wyoming | Photo by EcoFlight

By Deb Nardone, Director, Beyond Natural Gas Campaign

On April 8, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) won a legal challenge against proposed fracking operations in California. A federal judge ruled that federal authorities broke the law when they leased 2,700 acres of BLM land in Monterey and Fresno counties to oil and gas drillers without considering the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

"This important decision recognizes that fracking poses new, unique risks to California's air, water, and wildlife that government agencies can't ignore," said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel at CBD, who argued the case for the plaintiffs. "This is a watershed moment—the first court opinion to find a federal lease sale invalid for failing to address the monumental dangers of fracking."

"The court recognized that fracking is different from the oil and gas development that California has known thus far," said Nathan Matthews, the Sierra Club's lead attorney on the case. "The BLM argued that oil and gas production on these leases would be no different from what they have seen in the pre-fracking past, with the same level of production and same types of environmental impacts. The court recognized that fracking and modern unconventional production have changed the game."

Monterey County strenuously objected to the lease sale when it was issued in 2011, citing its water agency's opinion that fracking would put municipal water supplies at risk. The county, often referred to as "America's Salad Bowl," is a major agricultural center. Chances are when you enjoy your salad with dinner tonight—even on the east coast—much of it was grown in Monterey County.

Contrary to the popular notion of Hollywood and Silicon Valley dominating California's economy, agriculture is the Golden State's biggest industry. The BLM lands leased for fracking are part of the same Salinas River watershed and draw on the same aquifer as the salad bowl and famous wine-growing regions. Water pollution in the area could affect the price and quality of the food that millions of Americans consume each day. The leased lands also contain significant tourist and recreational areas.

The 2011 lease sale also provoked an outcry from local landowners, who feared it portended the beginning of a fracking boom. Fracking, which involves blasting water, sand, and toxic chemicals into underground rock formations, has been tied to water and air pollution in other states. It uses tremendous amounts of water and releases huge quantities of methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas, into the air. A recent study from the Colorado School of Public Health found that fracking contributes to neurological and respiratory problems in people living near fracked wells, and puts them at a higher risk of contracting cancer.

In his ruling, federal judge Paul Grewal wrote: "BLM argues that the effects of fracking on the parcels at issue are largely unknown. The court agrees, [and] this is precisely why proper investigation is so crucial."

The court has asked for a joint recommendation between the BLM and the plaintiffs on next steps in the case. The Center and the Sierra Club believe the areas should be set aside. Grewal said he did not want to "guess" whether the correct remedy was invalidating the leases or simply blocking activity on them. "As a practical matter, the results would be the same-no fracking on these leases for the foreseeable future," said CBD's Cummings.

"Fracking means more oil production, and even on a per-well or per-barrel-of-oil basis, it poses risks to water and other resources beyond those of conventional oil production," said Nathan Matthews. "We hope this decision will motivate regulators and the legislature in California and elsewhere to acknowledge the risks posed by fracking and the folly of allowing fracking to occur until these risks are understood and accounted for."

California's agricultural industry, the threat to its air and water, and the climate impacts of fracking are too important to rush into a fracking boom. Take action: Tell President Obama to protect our public lands and communities from the dangers of fracking.

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