​Oil pumping rigs adjacent to a vineyard are seen north of Bakersfield, California on July 8, 2021.

Oil pumping rigs adjacent to a vineyard are seen north of Bakersfield, California on July 8, 2021.

(Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

Biden Administration Sued Over Oil Drilling on California Public Lands

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management "has failed to evaluate how these projects heat the climate, guzzle water, and add to some of the dirtiest air in the country," said one attorney.

Five environmental groups on Thursday sued the Biden administration in an attempt to prevent the "unlawful" drilling of new oil wells on public land in California's San Joaquin Valley.

According to Earthjustice—which filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society—BLM on May 31 "rushed" the approval of six drilling permits in the Mount Poso oil field near Bakersfield "without allowing input from the public and nearby communities, as required by federal law."

The plaintiffs argued that "BLM failed to comply with multiple laws requiring the agency to consider the cumulative, harmful impacts this drilling will have on air quality, water, climate, and environmental justice in one of the most polluted areas of the country," Earthjustice noted. "To date, BLM has never examined the overall harms caused by its permitting decisions in the San Joaquin Valley, yet continues to approve new drilling activity."

The groups asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to halt drilling at the locations affected by the six permits BLM recently issued, pending resolution of the lawsuit and BLM's compliance with various federal laws, including the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the Mineral Leasing Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.

"It is our hope that the court sees the clear violations of federal law and pumps the brakes before irreversible damage occurs."

"BLM's reckless disregard for public health and the environment violates multiple federal laws meant to prevent these exact harms," Earthjustice attorney Radhika Kannan said in a statement. "Its blatant attempt to withhold its decision-making from public scrutiny further adds insult to injury for residents in the San Joaquin Valley, who cannot afford any more pollution in their communities."

"The San Joaquin Valley is the most polluted air basin in the country, and oil and gas production is a major contributor," Kannan continued. "BLM is not above the law and must answer to the local communities where residents experience the most asthma-related emergency room visits, heart attacks, and low birth-weight infants in the state of California."

Friends of the Earth legal director Hallie Templeton said that "we have done everything we can to warn the Biden administration of the myriad environmental and socioeconomic risks associated with more drilling in Kern County."

"We were deeply disappointed to see these permits granted, and the only option we have left is this lawsuit," said Templeton. "It is our hope that the court sees the clear violations of federal law and pumps the brakes before irreversible damage occurs."

"At every step, the BLM has failed to evaluate how these projects heat the climate, guzzle water, and add to some of the dirtiest air in the country," said Liz Jones, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. "It's an appalling violation of our nation's environmental laws to pretend that new drilling won't make the Central Valley's pollution problems worse."

Wilderness Society director Ben Tettlebaum noted that "residents and activists in the Central Valley work every day to make their communities healthy. The last thing they need is for the BLM to threaten their air and water by unlawfully approving more oil and gas drilling in their backyards."

"BLM's oil and gas permitting process is broken," added Tettlebaum. "Its practice of rubber-stamping applications in the shadows without public input and failing to consider the cumulative air, water, climate, and environmental justice impacts is far too common—and it's also illegal. BLM must commit to an open, lawful permitting process that stays true to the Biden administration's commitment to prioritize local communities and environmental justice."

Earthjustice pointed out that the new complaint builds on earlier litigation it filed on behalf of the same coalition, which "successfully challenged BLM's failure to analyze the cumulative harms of oil and gas development in Central California."

As the group explained:

Pursuant to settlement agreements filed in summer 2022, BLM has agreed to complete a proper environmental review for the region. Yet the agency has continued to approve new drilling without the benefit of that analysis. As a result, beginning in 2022, a coalition of local community organizations and national groups submitted extensive comments to BLM documenting how its Bakersfield Field Office routinely issues permits in violation of multiple federal laws and without evaluating the impacts to air quality, water quality and scarcity, climate change, local species, or public health, all while denying nearby communities an opportunity to review and comment on the permits.

Although President Joe Biden vowed on the 2020 campaign trail to crack down on federal leasing for fossil fuel extraction, his administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years than the Trump administration did in 2017 and 2018.

As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to ban new oil and gas lease sales on public lands and waters and to require federal permitting decisions to consider the social costs of additional planet-heating pollution. However, since Biden's first-week executive order suspending new fossil fuel leasing was challenged by a group of Big Oil-funded Republican attorneys general, the White House has forsaken those earlier promises—angering voters and worsening the life-threatening climate crisis it claims to be serious about mitigating.

Progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have urged the Biden administration on several occasions to use its executive authority to phase out oil and gas production on public lands and in offshore waters. A petition submitted last year included a regulatory framework to wind down oil and gas production by 98% by 2035. According to the coalition that drafted it, the White House can achieve this goal by using untapped provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.

That same coalition sued the Biden administration in April for refusing to respond to their petition for rulemaking. The lawsuit came just weeks after the White House greenlighted ConocoPhillips' massive Willow oil drilling project in the Alaskan Arctic. The Biden administration has also taken steps to expand fracked gas export capacity, especially in the U.S. Gulf South, since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

Biden's moves fly in the face of warnings from scientists, who said last year that wealthy countries must end oil and gas production entirely by 2034 to give the world a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C—beyond which the climate emergency's impacts will grow increasingly deadly, especially for the world's poor who bear the least responsibility for the crisis.

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