In this July 24, 2019, file photo, Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, is briefed by Jason Marshall, of the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil and Gas, center; Billy Lacobie, of Chevron, while touring the Chevron oil field in McKittrick, Calif. Newsom says he is encouraged by Chevron's efforts to clean up what has turned into the state's largest oil spill in decades. California Gov. Newsom moved Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020 to end issuing new hydraulic fracturing permits by 2024, a delay criticized by many environmental groups but characterized as legally and politically realistic by another. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool, File)

What's at stake?

Over one-million acres of public land in Central California are temporarily off-limits for new oil and gas drilling pending further environmental review. Advocates say it's an important "step forward."

Trump administration plans to allow new oil and gas drilling — including fracking — on millions of acres in Central California are on hold following a settlement between state and federal officials.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state environmental agencies on Monday announced an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management temporarily prohibiting new oil and gas drilling on certain federal lands pending “an adequate environmental review of the plan’s impacts on California’s resources and residents,” a news release said.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, cracks open rocks with water and chemicals to extract oil or gas.

The lawsuit and settlement are consistent with Newsom administration efforts to move California away from fossil fuel extraction. The governor last year directed state agencies to ban fracking by 2024 and completely phase out oil drilling by 2045.

“Fracking is dangerous for our communities, damaging to our environment, and out of step with California’s climate goals,” Bonta said in a statement. “The Trump administration recklessly opened Central California up to new oil and gas drilling without considering how fracking can hurt communities by causing polluted groundwater, toxic air emissions, minor earthquakes, climate impacts, and more.

“In keeping with the Bureau of Land Management’s mission to preserve the health of our public lands, it must reassess this Trump-Era mistake,” he added.

​The BLM declined to comment on the lawsuit settlement, said Sarah K. Denos, lead public affairs specialist.

Trump-era drilling and fracking expansion

Newsom and former Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the BLM in January 2020, after the Trump administration expanded oil and gas drilling in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties.

Local environmental advocates and nonprofits fiercely fought the move at 2019 public hearings and protests. But the BLM Bakersfield Field Office found in December 2019 that “there are no adverse environmental impacts due to hydraulic fracturing that cannot be alleviated,” ending a five-year ban on drilling and fracking on public lands.

In their lawsuit, state officials claimed the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by disregarding the dangers fracking poses to the environment and nearby communities. They also alleged the agency wouldn’t take up alternatives.

The lawsuit settlement, which is still subject to court approval, puts a moratorium on new oil and gas leases until the BLM conducts an “adequate environmental review,” the release said.

“Specifically, the Bureau agrees to not hold any lease sales until it finalizes a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) that supersedes its flawed 2019 review,” the release said.

Under the settlement, Bonta, Newsom and state agencies can comment on the new environmental impact statement and challenge it in court.

Environmental groups praise the decision, call for further bans

Environmental groups praised the news of the moratorium, banning new oil and gas drilling in Central California.

“Opening up over one million acres for oil and gas drilling in one of the most polluted regions of the country was an egregious decision by the Bakersfield Bureau of Land Management under the previous administration, and we are happy to see the Biden administration taking steps to protect California’s overburdened communities and environment,” said Mark Rose, Sierra Nevada program manager with National Parks Conservation Association, in a separate news release on Monday.

“Protecting public lands is not only a step forward, but also a way to prevent several steps back,” Cesar Aguirre, a senior organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network said Monday, adding that the use of public lands to “prop up the oil industry is dangerous.”

Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, said in the release that the agreement protects the “iconic landscapes that define central California” while protecting public health and moving California towards a cleaner energy future. “Fossil fuel extraction has wreaked havoc on our public lands, our farms and our neighborhoods for far too long. We now have an opportunity to chart a new course for safe and healthy communities throughout our region,” he said.

The decision coincides with a separate agreement that requires the BLM to conduct new environmental analysis before drilling is permitted on 4,000 acres leased in December 2020 in Kern County.

At the same time, the Trump administration auctioned seven parcels of public land in Kern County for drilling and fracking — a decision that conservation groups also challenged. According to the attorney general’s release, developed leases would disproportionately harm people who live in the region. More than half of Kern County residents are Latino, and nearly 20% live below the poverty line.

“Temporarily halting drilling on these lease parcels in Kern County is an important step toward stopping the unconscionable move of opening up new federal public lands for oil and gas leasing in the Central Valley, a region already overburdened by impacts of oil and gas extraction,” Nathan Matthews, a Sierra Club senior attorney, said in the news release.

But Matthews is calling for more drastic measures from the federal government: “the Biden administration should implement a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal public lands.”

The environmental groups pointed to peer-reviewed research that estimates that banning fossil fuel leasing would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among “the most ambitious federal climate policy proposals in recent years,” according to the release.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands causes nearly a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution, which is worsening the climate and extinction crises and disproportionately harming low-income people and communities and color.

Fresno County leaders, environmental groups at odds on oil, gas expansion

News of the moratorium on federal lands in California comes five months after the Fresno County board of supervisors issued a declaration urging state leaders to increase domestic oil production in light of rising gas prices for consumers and farmers.

Several Fresno County business leaders joined the supervisors in the call for increased domestic oil production, calling it a food security and national security concern. In addition to the bipartisan resolution, the supervisors called on Sacramento to ease the oil and gas industry regulations and issue more drilling permits.

The move is at odds with California’s goals to reduce oil and gas drilling in the state. Last year, Newsom directed state agencies last year to ban fracking by 2024 and phase out oil extraction by 2045.

A few weeks after the Fresno County supervisors’ resolution, Central Valley residents and environmental justice advocates — a group of about 25 people representing several organizations, including the Central California Environmental Justice Network, the Sierra Club – Tehipite Chapter, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, the Last Chance Alliance, and more — organized a news conference to call for the halt oil drilling across Fresno County to address the increasing impacts of climate change.

The group also called for a “just transition” away from oil and gas jobs or a plan to help avoid economic shocks to families and the economy by the loss of oil and gas jobs that would result from a ban on local production.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.