Fracturing California’s Climate Leadership

Posted June 05, 2019

By Rylee McCallin and Dr. Jon Conway

Nalleli Cobo grew up in LA, across the street from an oil well operated by AllenCo, with her school also just a few feet away. When she was nine years old, Nalleli had developed major respiratory problems, some that could cause her a lifetime of trouble. By the time she was 10, Nalleli was an environmental activist, knocking on doors and lobbying Governor Jerry Brown’s office to stop the pollution that was harming her. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency shut down production at that well after finding that there were leaks in the equipment that were releasing poisonous chemicals into the air. Nalleli and her family have since moved out of the area, but continue to fight for the community that remains in this toxic environment.

"For decades the oil industry has put our health and safety in jeopardy, now we the youth are fighting back, and we’re winning. It’s time for justice and it’s time to put people’s health over profit." Nalleli Cobo

By 2015, fossil fuel development—like the kind that drove the Cobos from their home—had flooded domestic markets with cheap oil, paving the way for Congress to lift its 40-year ban on oil and gas exporting and driving an explosion in U.S. production. In response to this new push for drilling and fracking in California, environmental advocacy groups immediately filed a lawsuit against the Bakersfield office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on the grounds that it violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 by failing to consider the additional environmental harm from new oil and gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) leases proposed for Central and Southern California counties ranging from Madera to Ventura—eight counties in total. Charging the government with environmental negligence, the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forestwatch, among others, highlighted all the effects that the increased drilling would have on the environment and the people living in the areas affected. The efforts of these groups led to a five year moratorium that banned leases for fracking in California—a moratorium the Trump administration is now seeking to reverse.

As part of its plan to auction off millions of acres of public federal lands for oil and gas developers—including more than 1.7 million acres throughout California—the Trump administration is pushing the BLM to draft supplementary environmental impact statements looking at the impacts of hydraulic fracking for blocked oil and gas projects. Fortunately, this does offer the public an opportunity to give feedback, and we strongly encourage you to voice your opposition via our action page here!

The Trump administration’s attempts to expand oil and gas development, despite the negative impacts that our state already faces due to drilling and the burning of fossil fuels, clearly contradicts the wishes of residents and further threatens the health of nearby ecosystems and the global climate system.

If implemented, the BLM’s plan would open up just over 1 million acres of public land in the Bakersfield area alone, including 5,000 acres within one mile of Sequoia National Park, and another 2,000 near the border of Yosemite National Park. Lake Isabella, located about 45 miles outside of the city of Bakersfield and serving as the community’s primary source of drinking water, would be open for drilling and fracking leases with the new plan. BLM estimated that roughly 40 new wells would be drilled per year under this plan, but the Trump administration has also dramatically increased the number of well permit approvals and sped up the approval process.

Yosemite National Park

The boom in domestic oil and gas was sold as more “green” than coal power at a time when the public was becoming more fully aware of the impacts that the coal industry was having on the health of both people and planet. Like the fossil fuel industry’s other hollow reassurances about the safety of their products, this too is false. Studies now show that methane, one of the components pulled from the ground in the fracking process and the most potent greenhouse gas, is being released from pipelines into the air. A study by NASA suggests that 27.5 million tons of methane enter the atmosphere from leaks each year, a number that would only continue to increase with the addition of new drills all over the country.

Methane in the air has the largest direct impact on communities living in and around wells and disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. A study found that 76 percent of drills and wells are located in communities with above-average rates of poverty. Another study found that, of Californians living within one mile of a well, 67 percent are people of color, aligning with the trend of rampant environmental racism taking place throughout the country. People living in areas near oil productions, like Nalleli Cobo, often suffer methane exposure of high densities—which causes headaches, dizziness, respiratory problems, seizures, and other serious maladies.

Within the last several decades, California has become a leader in taking action against the climate crisis our world currently faces. This proposed addition of thousands of acres for oil production could produce up to 100 million barrels of oil per year, which would lead to about 45 million tons of carbon emitted annually. By 2045—when California is mandated to be carbon neutral under former Governor Jerry Brown’s 2018 executive order—these additional wells will have produced the equivalent of 1.13 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, the same amount of carbon held in nearly 50 billion pounds of coal and amounting to more than 20 percent of California’s remaining carbon budget.

And it’s not just the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions Californians need to be concerned about. The type of fracking being proposed throughout Central California shatters the bedrock beneath our feet. When high-pressure fluid (made up of a slurry of lab-made chemicals, water, and sand) is pumped into the wells, rocks containing the desired oil and gas compounds crack and release. Injecting this toxic mix into the ground destabilizes the earth, causing some earthquakes that are smaller and less detectable, and others that come with much bigger consequences.

The water that is used to mix with the chemicals and sand is primarily pumped out of groundwater reserves, and the huge amounts of toxic wastewater produced from every well are usually pumped right back into the ground—in some case into protected drinking water aquifers in violation of state and federal law. With the amount of water needed to make this happen, it is no surprise that places like Montana and North Dakota, where wells are ubiquitous, are starting to experience earthquakes unlike any they have seen before.

In California, the majority of our water is used for consumption, such as drinking, showering, and perhaps most importantly, the agriculture that feeds us and almost half of the country. Eighty-five percent of Californians rely in part or in total on groundwater from aquifers. With the increasing contamination of this water, we are shrinking the potable groundwater resources available to us and placing unsustainable demands on our existing aquifers. As water is drained from these underground aquifers, the ground surface elevation will change, which can impact major infrastructure such as roads and buildings and cause even greater economic strain when we must repair the damage. Such severe damage to the aquifer will make much of this land subsidence permanent—even if all the groundwater is replenished.

On top of all of this, the plan to add more wells would place drills close to National and State parks that contain some of our most precious bodies of water and much of the biodiversity that makes California such a beautiful place. These parks, including Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite, are home to multiple endangered species that would be severely impacted by the noise pollution, water contamination, and natural disasters that may be the result of increased fracking.

You can help resist the move to reopen California’s lands for fracking. Though comments about the Central Coast oil drilling production have been recently closed, the Bureau for Land Management in Bakersfield is taking public comments until June 10 regarding the addition of drills and wells. You can write a comment sharing your experiences and voicing your concerns about the future of our health and the wellbeing of the planet here:

Resist Trump's Move to Open CA for Fracking

Submit a Comment to the BLM Now

More Recent Posts

December 04, 2019

Understanding Climate Grief

Confronting the psychological effects of climate change

October 01, 2019

Fighting Climate Change from the Ground Up

How regenerative agriculture can help revitalize the earth in the era of climate change