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Dispatches: Santa Barbarans Rally Against Efforts to Expand Fracking in California

News and notes from Pacific Standard staff and contributors.
The sun rises over an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is on the verge of a boom on March 24th, 2014, near Lost Hills, California.

Last week, environmental groups, local elected officials, and community members gathered at the Santa Barbara Courthouse for a midday rally against the Trump administration's efforts to open up federal land in the state to drilling and fracking.

The Bureau of Land Management has not sold any leases for new oil and gas exploration on federal land in California since 2013, but, this summer, the agency took the first step to open as much as 1.6 million acres to bids from the oil industry. On August 8, the BLM published a notice on the Federal Register announcing a 30-day comment period on its plan to study the environmental and public-health impacts that could arise from fracking on public lands in the state—including some 122,000 acres of federal land and mineral estate in Santa Barbara County.

"I'm calling on our community to join me in sending a strong message to this administration and to Secretary Zinke—who has roots in this community—that our community does not want our public land opened up to new oil drilling or fracking for the enrichment of corporations," Congressman Salud Carbajal said from a podium in the shade of the courthouse arch to a crowd standing in the Sunken Gardens. "Lets tell them that our community's public health and natural resources are not for sale."

Citing the recent report from the United Nations' top climate science panel, which found we have just a dozen years left to reduce emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change, Carbajal said, "We need to lessen our consumption of carbon fuels now, not continue down this path of new oil development."

"We cannot afford to ignore the reality of climate change any longer, or the impacts our communities are experiencing," he added, including sea level rise, year-round fire season, drought, and extreme temperatures.

"It's disheartening that this administration relishes its ignorance about the need to address global warming," County Supervisor Joan Hartmann said.

But officials' concerns with the BLM's plan extended beyond the environmental or climate impacts of ramping up oil operations in California, to what community leaders characterized as a "stealth effort" by the Trump administration to begin the environmental assessment of fracking on public lands with little public scrutiny.

Los Padres ForestWatch, a conservation non-profit, criticized the BLM for failing to release its data showing which parcels of land could be opened to drilling and fracking. When the agency finally did release its mapping data—halfway through the public comment period—ForestWatch had to use technical mapping software to transform the raw data into a map the public could use.

One 40-acre parcel in Santa Barbara County for which the federal government owns the subsurface mineral rights sits next to both the Los Padres National Forest and the Cate School, a boarding high school in Carpinteria.

"The Carpinteria parcel the BLM has proposed for energy exploration is a half-mile from our property and is adjacent to a trail our students use on a regular basis to access a wilderness camp we maintain in the back country," Hallie Greene, the director of strategic planning at the school. "Despite this project having significant impacts on our community, we learned of the public comment opportunity not through the federal government or the BLM, but through ForestWatch, and we're concerned this initiative is being moved along without truly alerting the public."

Greene's concerns were echoed by local elected officials and landowners. "Normally as a courtesy one government entity notifies another about actions of broad public interest that will occur in the other's jurisdiction," Hartman said, "but we discovered this proposal only because of the vigilance of Los Padres ForestWatch."

CJ Jackson, whose family has owned the Alisal Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley for decades, said that he was not there to "render a judgment on oil drilling or our methods of extraction," but rather as a property owner whose land abuts two potential lease sites. "I believe wholeheartedly that property owners should not have to peruse the Federal Register to find out what's going on next door," he said to cheers from the crowd.

This dispatch originally appeared in The Lede, the weekly Pacific Standard email newsletter for premium members. The Lede gives premium members greater access to Pacific Standard stories, staff, and contributors in their inbox every week. While helping to support journalism in the public interest, members also receive early access to feature stories, an ad-free version of, and other benefits.