FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2012, file photo, oil field workers drill into the Gypsum Hills near Medicine Lodge, Kan., using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", to coax out oil and gas. The nation's newfound reserves of natural gas can help offset the economic cost of importing oil. Delivery trucks, garbage trucks and some long-haul trucks are beginning to switch to cheaper natural gas and away from oil-derived diesel. And several companies are applying for permits to export natural gas to Europe and Asia. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
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SAN JOSE, Calif. —
A U.S. judge in San Jose has ruled that a government agency violated federal law by failing to study the possible environmental risks of fracking when it sold oil development leases on 2,703 acres of public land in Monterey and Fresno counties in 2011.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's failure to consider the effects of fracking "simply did not provide the hard look at the issue" that the National Environmental Policy Act requires.
He said the bureau should have prepared a full environmental impact statement on the risks posed by chemical used in hydraulic fracturing on nearby water supplies, human health and air quality.
Grewal issued the ruling, which was posted on the court's docket on Sunday, in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club.
He did not order any immediate action, however, and instead ordered the government and the two environmental groups to confer on an appropriate remedy and submit a proposed judgment to him by April 15.
The remedy could include invalidating the 2011 leases or halting any drilling on the land until a study is prepared, Grewal wrote.
Brendan Cummings, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the two environmental groups believe the leases should be set aside, or that at a minimum, no drilling or fracking should be allowed on the land until an analysis is completed.
He said the decision is the first time a federal court has ruled that leases were improperly sold because of a failure to study fracking impacts.
"This important decision recognizes that fracking poses new, unique risks to California's air, water and wildlife that government agencies can't ignore," said Cummings.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals into an underground oil or natural gas reservoir. The operation is intended to fracture the surrounding rock and allow more oil or gas to flow into the reservoir.
The 2,703 acres leased by the bureau in 2011 are part of the Monterey Shale Formation, sometimes known as the Monterey/Santos Shale Formation, which covers 1,750 square miles in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles Basin.
The formation is estimated to contain more than 15 billion barrels of oil, about two-thirds of the nation's total shale oil reserve.
Advocates of fracking say it can help to meet the nation's energy needs, while opponents claim the chemicals could contaminate groundwater used as drinking water and in agriculture, pollute the air and endanger human health.
Grewal said the Bureau of Land Management erred by estimating, on the basis of past experience in central and southern California, that only one exploratory well would be drilled in the 2,703 leased acres, resulting in no significant environmental impact.
In view of recent technological advances and increases in the use of fracking, "it was unreasonable for the BLM not to at least consider reasonable projections of drilling in the area that include fracking operations," Grewal wrote.
The bureau auctioned off leases on 2,343 acres in Monterey County and two parcels totaling 240 acres in Fresno County to three energy developers for a total of $257,000 on Sept. 14, 2011. Six days later, it sold a lease on another 120-acre parcel in Monterey County.
The two largest sales were for $180,000 to Vintage Production California LLC of Bakersfield for 200 acres in Fresno County and for $56,400 to Neil Ormond of Clovis for 2,343 acres in Monterey County.
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