The settlement blocks new federal fracking leases in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Leasing for new oil and gas drilling on federal land in central California is temporarily blocked under a settlement announced Monday between the state and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The deal, which still needs court approval, centers on more than 2,500 square miles (6,475 square kilometers) of land and underground mineral rights owned by the federal government in California’s Central Valley, a hub of oil and gas activity. It prohibits the federal government from leasing any land for drilling until it completes a new review of the environmental damage that may be caused by fracking, a process used to extract oil and natural gas from rock.

“Fracking is dangerous to our communities, harms our environment and is inconsistent with California’s climate goals,” California Attorney General Rob Bonda said in a statement announcing the settlement.

The controversy over federal drilling activity on the land began in 2014, when the Obama administration wanted to lease the land. Environmental groups sued, arguing that the plan failed to assess environmental harm. In 2017, the agency agreed to provide an additional environmental review, according to the settlement.

The Trump administration later moved forward with the 2014 plan without substantive changes, the settlement said. Environmental groups sued again, and so did the state of California, arguing that the federal government failed to assess how fracking would affect water, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, recreational land use, seismic effects and more.

Fracking is the process of injecting a high-pressure mixture of mostly water with some sand and chemical additives into rock to create or expand cracks that allow oil and gas to be extracted. It’s a controversial practice because of concerns about the injected chemicals contaminating groundwater.

The settlement places a moratorium on any sales of oil and gas leases on federal land around Bakersfield until appropriate environmental reviews are completed.

The Biden administration tried to suspend the sale of leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land, but was blocked by a court. The first land lease auctions since Biden took office began in late June. Available land covered about 225 square miles (580 square kilometers) in the mostly western states, but none in California.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a ban on new fracking permits on state-permitted land starting in 2024. Fracking accounts for only a small percentage of the state’s oil production. The Newsom administration has already begun denying fracking permits based on climate change concerns, prompting oil and gas groups to sue.

Kevin Slagle, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said decisions that make it harder to produce energy in California will cause prices to rise.

“It is unfortunate that President Biden is traveling the world asking other countries to increase production while our governor is working hard to eliminate domestic resources,” he said in a statement.

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