Did the Government Illegally Open up 400,000 Acres in California for Fracking?

The federal and state governments illegally opened up 400,000 acres for fracking in Southern California, which already has thousands of such dangerous oil and gas wells, environmentalists claim in court.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forestwatch sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Secretary of the Interior and the director of California's Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday in Federal Court.

They claim the governments violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving fracking without proper environmental analysis.

"Long term, business-as-usual oil and gas development in Central California, which is what the federal government has approved here, facilitates the expansion of high-impact unconventional extraction techniques, like fracking, in a region already overburdened by oil and gas activities, polluted air, extreme water scarcity and landscape degradation," plaintiffs' attorney Tamara Zakim told Courthouse News in an email.

"The federal government has ignored these realities and turned its back on California's environmental health in approving this plan. The law requires better."

RELATED: 8 Dangerous Side Effects of Fracking That the Industry Doesn't Want You to Hear About

Fracking involves high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale rock to fracture the formations and extract oil and gas. Environmentalists say it can pollute groundwater and even cause earthquakes. Homeowners in some areas near fracking operations have sued oil companies, claiming the process made their tap water flammable.

The Monterey Shale Formation, estimated to contain 13.7 billion to 15 billion barrels of shale oil, underlies parts of the land affected by the plan. The land at issue, in eight counties, is administered by the BLM's Bakersfield office. It "ranges in character from coastal areas near Los Padres National Forest, to dry expanses in the San Joaquin Valley, the rugged hills in the Sierra bioregion," the complaint states.

California is the fourth-largest producer of oil in the country and contains 10 of its most productive oil wells. Most of the state's oil are in Kern and Ventura Counties, the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles County.

The BLM's Bakersfield office is responsible for Kings, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, Ventura, Madera, southern Fresno, and western Kern counties.

California's oil producers are increasingly turning to fracturing to extract oil. Kern County alone contained 2,361 fracked wells in 2014, and Ventura County had 456 of them, according to the complaint.

RELATED: Maryland's Republican Gov Allows Fracking Ban

The land also provides habitat for 86 rare and endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, California condor and the California jewelflower.

Oil and gas production cause a slew of environmental problems, including destruction of habitat, air pollution, greenhouse gas production and wastewater, the complaint states.

Fracking is even more dangerous, the groups say. Fracking fluids contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive materials, and the process generates "many gallons of toxic wastewater each day," the complaint states.

The BLM issued a final draft of the plan and the environmental impact statement in August 2012.

The groups call the report inadequate because, among other things, it predicts that 100 to 400 wells will be drilled in the next 10 years without taking into account new technologies that can extend the life of a well. Nor does it address how fracking "will expand the scope and intensity of oil and gas activities, thereby expanding or intensifying surface disturbance impacts."

The groups claim the report erroneously analyzed impacts to air quality by assuming that only 40 new wells will be drilled each year, though the plan estimates that 4,000 wells will be drilled in the lifetime of the plan. Nor does it does not discuss fracking's impact on groundwater in the midst of severe drought.

RELATED: Fracking Pollutes Drinking Water, Says Long-Awaited EPA Study

Finally, they claim, the government refused to order a new environmental impact statement despite new scientific evidence indicating that fracking has substantial affects upon air quality, water supply and public health.

A BLM spokesman said the agency does not comment on "the specifics of active litigation."

The environmental groups seek declaratory judgment that the bureau violated NEPA by adopting the plan without adequate environmental analysis.

They want it enjoined from authorizing any oil and gas drilling until it analyzes a range of oil development alternatives and their environmental impacts.

Their attorney Tamara Zakim is with Earthjustice of San Francisco.

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