Critics attack Trump plan to allow new oil leases, fracking in California
The movement against fossil fuel development on the Central Coast is alive and kicking.
A public meeting erupted into an impassioned rally in San Luis Obispo Wednesday night as activists and local residents took turns bashing a federal plan to resume leasing public land in Central California to new oil and gas drilling, including fracking.
More than 200 people gathered in a banquet room at Embassy Suites to raise alarms about the potential impacts to local groundwater, air quality and the climate. They called for the Bureau of Land Management to abandon plans to issue oil and gas leases in California for the first time in five years, including in the Central Valley and on the Central Coast.
“Oil drilling, production and transport present a clear and ever-present danger to the health and safety of residents and businesses in our local economy,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, who led the city in passing an ordinance opposing new oil and gas development and made a city-wide commitment to be carbon neutral by 2035.
Representatives of the BLM’s Bakersfield office heard hours of testimony, chants, and jeers against the agency’s proposed plan to lift an unofficial moratorium on issuing oil and gas leases and allow fracking within the district.
The office manages 400,000 acres of public land and 1.2 million acres of federal mineral estate in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura counties.
Agency officials said about 800,000 acres across those counties are available to new oil and gas leases.
“While all new oil and gas drilling in the Bakersfield planning area threatens our scenic and biological resources, water supply, water quality, air quality, climate, seismicity, and rural and agricultural way of life,” Harmon said, “there are areas that the BLM proposes to open for drilling and fracking that are of particular local concern.”
BLM is currently accepting public comments on its draft environmental assessment of hydraulic fracturing associated with oil and gas development in the region that determined the practice would have negligible impacts. Written public comments can be submitted until June 10 at the project website: https://go.usa.gov/xE3Nw, or by mail to the Bakersfield Field Office, Attn: Bakersfield RMP Hydraulic Fracturing Analysis, 3801 Pegasus Drive, Bakersfield, CA 93308.
After the event, BLM Bakersfield Field Manager Gabe Garcia told The Tribune he heard “a lot of very impassioned folks,” and that he will take their comments into account.
The ultimate decision about whether BLM will move forward with its proposal, Garcia said, is up to the state director of BLM — Acting Director Joe Stout — and ultimately national leadership. BLM falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which, as of April 11, is led by David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist.
The BLM does not self-nominate lands for leasing. Rather it responds to expressions of interest from companies who want to extract resources. Once multiple companies have expressed interest in several leases, Garcia said, BLM would perform a sweeping environmental review of the potential site-specific impacts.
Garcia said he does have the authority to make a recommendation to his bosses about whether the district-wide environmental impact statement is thorough and if the office should proceed with its proposal.
He told The Tribune Wednesday night that he has no reason to change his mind against the proposal, “based on what we’ve seen.”
‘Rally for climate crisis warriors’
The meeting was the second of three public meetings on the plan. Public comment was heard Tuesday night in Bakersfield and Thursday night in Santa Barbara, where the largest crowd of opponents was expected to voice their grievances.
The San Luis Obispo crowd expressed disgust and outrage when a BLM official disclosed that their verbal comments were not being recorded, but they were relieved to learn that Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club recorded the meeting and plans to transcribe comments to submit into the public record.
Still, members of the audience considered the meeting a sham and assume officials have already made up their minds.
“We don’t want more oil and we know that the BLM is here just to check an item on their list because the law asked them to do it. They don’t care about the health of our public lands. They don’t care to save our public lands for future generations,” said Rita Casaverde, with Climate Reality SLO.
“In a time when scientists are telling us that we need to take rapid action and unprecedented action to avoid catastrophic (climate) consequences, the BLM comes to us to ask us if we want more oil. In a time where we’re seeing record-breaking floods, temperature, droughts, the BLM comes and asks us if we want more fracking,” Casaverde said.
“We say no, and we say keep it in the ground,” she said to cheers.
Local climate activist Charles Varni said the meeting was no longer for public comment. Rather, it was a “rally for climate crisis warriors.”
Only one person spoke in support of the proposal, Paso Robles resident Peter Byrne, who was interrupted several times as he questioned climate science and whether gas and oil development has significant environmental affects.
He was physically confronted by one man, and multiple people intervened in a tense moment that looked as though it could have become physical.
Who decides the fate of the land?
The crowd was amped-up and some expressed strong emotions, shedding tears during their testimony or shouting in support of the speakers who represented diverse groups of community members, including farmworkers, activists, youth and members of local indigenous groups.
A representative of the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe said “this proposal is deeply personal.”
“When I look at the maps of the area in the northern parts of San Luis Obispo County, I see the outline of formerly titled land held by matriarchs in my family seized through eminent domain within the span of a generation. I see a continuum of dispossession,” said Sarah Biscarra-Dilley of the indigenous Northern Chumash.
“yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini says no to any development of oil and gas resources in our homelands,” she said.
President Donald Trump, who aims to relax regulations and thrust America into domestic energy dominance, was also the subject of loud jeers.
“This is terrifying. This is so scary,” Carmen Bouquin of SLO County Youth for Environmental Action said of the BLM’s proposal, before she directed her comments to BLM officials. “I want you to look me in the eye and tell me that you’re doing this for the best of my health ... for the best of our lands. I’m sorry that your boss is a bad person, but that doesn’t mean you have to be too. We can do better.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the plan, has said it will continue to fight oil and gas development and plans to use “all the tools in the box,” said Candice Kim, who runs the organization’s climate campaign.
“We will keep fighting this,” Kim said.
The rest of the crowd expressed a commitment to the cause, too, including youth climate activist Bouquin, who said, “The battle does not end tonight. It keeps going.”