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Judge Strikes Down Plan to Open California Lands to Fracking

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A California judge struck down a bid Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to expropriate more than 1 million acres in central California for oil drilling.

Judge Michael Fitzgerald found that the BLM failed to consider the dangers of fracking, which is part of the formal application process. Two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch, brought the lawsuit against the BLM.

A California judge has blocked BLM from issuing leases for more than 1 million acres for failing to address how fracking would impact area.

"The bureau failed to take a 'hard look' at the environmental impact of the resource management plan, when, under the RMP, 25 percent of new wells are expected to use hydraulic fracturing," Judge Fitzgerald said in his ruling.

"The bureau is therefore obligated to prepare a substantial EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] to analyze the environmental consequences flowing from the use of hydraulic fracturing."

The bureau's 1,073-page impact statement only mentioned fracking three times, SFGate reported. BLM had commissioned a report from the California Council on Science and Technology two years ago, the judge noted. However, commissioning the study does not absolve the BLM from further analyzing the impact of fracking on the area for its current permit, Fitzgerald added.

The area in question involves the following counties: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura.

The agency has until Sept. 21 to present arguments as to why the judge should not issue an injunction to stop the plan.

The contested land area provides shelter to more than one-third of the federally listed threatened and endangered species, as well as groundwater systems that provide water for agricultural and residential purposes, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Environmentalists lauded the ruling.

"The Obama administration must get the message and end this reckless rush to auction off our public land to oil companies," Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity's conservation director, said. "As California struggles against drought and climate change, we've got to end fracking and leave this dirty oil in the ground."

ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper also praised the ruling: "This ruling will protect public lands from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the Central Coast from an influx of oil development and fracking. These treasured landscapes provide many benefits to our local communities and are too valuable to sacrifice for a few days' supply of oil."

But, the petroleum industry wasn't as happy with the ruling.

"Hydraulic fracturing and other well stimulation treatments in California have undergone rigorous analysis and review, culminating in the most stringent environmental standards nationwide," Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said. "Countless independent, state and federal science-based studies all agree. Hydraulic fracturing, when regulated, remains a safe technology that provides enormous benefits to American businesses and customers."

This latest ruling is not the first time a federal judge has blocked BLM from developing California land because of its failure to consider the environmental implications of fracking.

In 2013, a different judge ruled that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing oil leases on Monterey County land without doing necessary studies on the impact of fracking. BLM is still completing an environmental review on fracking, and has not been able to issue any leases in that area.

California has been a battleground state between companies eager to frack for oil and gas, and anti-fracking campaigns. So far, five California counties have banned the industrial practice, with Alameda County becoming the latest to do so.

Santa Cruz, San Benito, Mendocino and Butte counties have also banned fracking, while Monterey County will vote on the issue this November. Environmental groups are tackling the issue county by county after California Gov. Jerry Brown came out against a state-wide ban against fracking in June 2015.

Fracking may also be exacerbating California's long-standing drought. In 2014, the California Department of Gas and Geothermal Resources issued an order to shut down 11 fracked wells over concerns that they were contaminating sources of drinking water. The agency also placed 100 additional wells under consideration to determine whether they were contaminating water.

In February, EcoWatch reported that the federal government will not issue any new permits for offshore fracking in California following the settlement of a case, brought by the Center for Biological Diversity. In the lawsuit, Center for Biological Diversity said that federal regulators were providing permits for fracking activities without duly considering the larger impact on wildlife and coastal communities.

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