Valley residents are told oral testimony will not be part of the public comment record on plan to allow new oil drilling, fracking in Central California
By Anthony Ferranti
Special to The Sun-Gazette
BAKERSFIELD – Central Valley and Central Coast residents went to Bakersfield last week with the intention of voicing their opposition to new oil drilling leases in the Central California. Instead, they were told the meeting would not be recorded and only written comments would be submitted into the record.
On May 21, concerned residents from all over Central California assembled inside the Kern County Board Chambers to participate in a public meeting to comment on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recently released Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The plan proposes opening up over 1 million acres of federal land and mineral estates in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura Counties to oil exploration and extraction, including the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
Before anyone could comment, Maureen O’Shea-Stone, an independent contractor working with the BLM on this project, opened the meeting by informing all in attendance that the public comment period would run through June 10. This would constitute a 45-day comment period, which incidentally is half of the typical 90-day public comment period. “Official comments on the Draft Supplemental EIS are only being accepted in written format. The speakers tonight will be telling us their opinions, but these are not official comments that will be transcribed or recorded and used in the project record,” O’Shea-Stone explained.
Hearing that only comments submitted in written form would be accepted into the official record came as a shock and angered many in attendance that evening. Elliot Gonzales of Long Beach vehemently expressed his outrage, “These people [the BLM staff in attendance], they’re not the decision makers. Their job is just to facilitate a meeting for public comments that are going to go straight to the waste basket.”
A diverse and representative group of people nearly filled the chambers that evening. There was even an environmentally-conscious group from Fresno that road a bus together. And were it not for the efforts of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and Central California Environmental Justice Network, who paid for a court reporter to record oral comments given that evening to assure that they go into the record, everyone’s comments would not have been entered into the public record, therefore would not have been taken into consideration by the decision makers, such as Joe Stout, acting BLM state director. But thankfully, Dr. Jason Pfeifle of the Center for Biological Diversity took a moment during his allotted two minutes to let everyone know their comments would be heard.
There were other acts of solidarity and commitment to community on display that evening. Although, the BLM meeting organizers saw fit to hire not just one, but two sign language interpreters, there was no Spanish translator available for the many Spanish speaking people in attendance and making public comment. While some called out the organizers and labeled the event a farce, others responded by stepping up to volunteer as impromptu interpreters.
Aside from the expressed frustrations with the flawed and contentious structure for the public meeting, many Central Valley residents had much to say regarding the Draft Supplemental EIS and the possibility of additional oil production near their communities.
Some called into question the validity of the EIS report. “When the agency announced that it estimated zero to four wells would be fracked within the 1.2 million acres. That actually relied on a 2015 California state report, which is nowhere to be found. That’s a violation of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Ac],” said Gary Lasky, a Fresno attorney and Sierra Club Tehipite chapter member stated.
“[The IES] uses a completely unrealistic development projection of zero to four fracked wells per year, for 10 years,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, deputy director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Kern County, one of eight counties in the planning area, has projected the development of approximately 2,697 new wells per year for the next 20 years and beyond. So, zero to four is completely unreasonable and as a result the DEIS drastically underestimates impacts.”
Others cited all too familiar examples of the potentially disastrous environmental impacts that fracking can inflict on land, air, water, wildlife and public health.
“This is our hearing and we hope you are listening,” said Sandy Reding, a California Nurses Association Board Member. “I see so many children with asthma. We have the highest pollution rates. We just want clean air to breath and clean water to drink. Is that too much to ask?”
There was also a minority of supporters of the proposal present who stepped up to the microphone that evening. Lorelei Oviatt, director of Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department stated, “The permit requirements for Kern County on hydraulic fracturing, as well as the rest of oil permitting goes beyond the requirements of SB4 in the state of California. No other county in California, including the coast, has imposed the types of requirements of mitigation that we’ve imposed on oil.”
Nayamin Martinez, MPH, director of Central California Environmental Justice Network called into question Oviatt’s point regarding mitigation.
“Fees paid for permits to mitigate air pollution are not really mitigating anything,” Martinez said. “That [money] goes to a general fund that the San Joaquin district uses under its discretion to fund projects, but not projects that are really mitigating air pollution that these oil wells are creating.”
According to O’Shea-Stone, “It’s important to remember that this Supplemental EIS doesn’t authorize any leasing, it does not authorize any auctions for leases. Should these leases be allowed there would still be two additional NEPA analyses done. First at the lease sale stage. And second at a much more site specific, project specific analysis.”