A spat over oil drilling on public lands pitted local environmental groups and a collection of California lawmakers against a federal agency in early September.
Critics of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) say it gave too short of notice to the public about its 30-day comment period for potential projects involving hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in eight counties across the state, including Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
"It's definitely a curtailed process, what we're seeing here," Los Padres ForestWatch Executive Director Jeff Kuyper said. He told the Sun his nonprofit had to ask the agency to hand over a higher resolution map, with richer detail, so people could even identify which lands had been targeted.
"There wasn't even a public hearing for this," Kuyper added.
The deadline for public input ended on Sept. 7. Some opponents to the BLM's move and the fossil fuel industry said the decision to open the areas to prospective oil and gas firms was a direct assault by Washington, D.C.
Areas eyed for development include Vandenberg Air Force Base, along with a 40-acre BLM parcel on the north side of Lake Cachuma near the Los Padres National Forest. Several other smaller pieces of land along Highway 154, Tepusquet Canyon, and Purisima Hills were also identified.
"This decision is yet another example of the Trump administration attempting to sell off our public lands to enrich private corporations," Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) told the Sun. In an email, Carbajal said he did not believe the public notice to comment on the BLM's plan was sufficient "given the magnitude of this proposal."
The congressman, like Kuyper with Los Padres ForestWatch, as well as the Center for Biological Diversity, all called on the BLM to extend the comment period before it closed. They were joined by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara).
However, the BLM refused to budge and ended the comment period at its scheduled time.
Serena Baker, a spokesperson for the federal agency's Bakersfield office, told the Sun the BLM's hands were essentially tied after the Department of Interior issued an executive order in 2017 demanding projects be fast-tracked through the environmental review and permitting process.
Order No. 3355, signed by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt on Aug. 31 of that year, caps page numbers for environmental impact statements and limits the amount of time the BLM can spend on them. The directive also narrows any windows that would allow the agency to extend comment periods, as it had in previous years.
"I think in the past we have been able to extend comment periods, but now in order to comply with Secretarial Order 3355, we're just not able to extend comment periods any longer," Baker said.
Federal officials say the goal is to streamline the permitting and review process for projects on public lands, not just for the average citizen, but for people doing business with the federal government because sometimes the analyses can take several years to conduct.
"It's a tighter timeframe now," she added.
Baker noted that many of the lands identified by the agency for oil and gas development have been open for decades.
"This does not open 1.6 million acres of new public land for hydraulic fracturing," she said, adding that even though the comment period had closed, the BLM would still need to complete its environmental review draft document by February 2019. After that, it has to show those results to the public, take further comment, and then hypothetically find an interested oil or gas company, which would kick-start more review periods along with public meetings and additional time for comment.
And finding interest may be hard because most of the Central Coast is designated by the BLM to have "moderate potential" for oil and gas development and pales in comparison to neighboring counties like Kern.
"So there's still several layers where more analysis would be done kind of on a step-down basis," Baker explained. She said that whatever happened, "There will be more opportunities for people to feel like their input is heard."
This is not the first time environmental groups like Los Padres ForestWatch and The Center for Biological Diversity have sparred with the BLM. In 2014, the two nonprofits filed a lawsuit against the agency's Bakersfield office following the release of its approved resource management plan.
It is that action that forced the agency to take input on the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process that involves injecting a chemical-water mixture at high speeds into bedrock to extract oil and natural gas. Environmentalists say the practice pollutes drinking water. Industry experts argue it's an effective way of harvesting material that energy firms could otherwise not access.
And even though the BLM made good on its part of the settlement by taking in comments about the controversial process, Los Padres ForestWatch Director Kuyper didn't rule out additional legal action against the agency, this time over the shortened comment period.
"If we get into a situation where they're saying, 'Hey, we're gonna do the smallest, most limited amount of public comment possible, and we're gonna approve this as quickly as possible, using the smallest number of pages possible,' that's just a recipe for a disaster, and they're basically begging for this to land back in court again," he said. "If they were willing to add an additional 30 to 50 days–which is all we were asking for in our request for a time extension–in the grand scheme of things, that's not going to negatively impact the overall timing of this process, which is going to take at least another year."
Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at [email protected].