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Environmental Groups Sue Feds Over Central California Fracking

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- Two environmental groups filed a new lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in federal court in San Jose Thursday, accusing it of failing to study the risks of fracking on 17,833 acres of public land in Monterey County and the Central Valley that it leased to 15 oil development companies.

The new suit by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club challenges the bureau's auctioning of oil and natural gas exploration and development leases in Monterey, Fresno and San Benito counties on Dec. 12, 2012.

It claims the bureau should have prepared a full environmental impact statement on the effects of possible hydraulic fracturing of underground rock—known as fracking—on water, air and wildlife.

"The federal government has to stop shrugging off the dangers of fracking pollution to California's public lands," Center for Biological Diversity attorney Brendan Cummings said.

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"By opening up this land to oil exploration, the Obama administration is putting our air and water at risk of contamination by dangerous fracking chemicals," Cummings contended.

Thursday's filing follows a victory by the same two groups in an earlier lawsuit challenging lease sales on 2,703 other acres in Monterey and Fresno counties in 2011.

In the earlier case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal of San Jose ruled last week that the bureau should have conducted a full environmental study of the risks posed by fracking chemicals on water supplies, air and human health.

Grewal said the bureau "simply did not provide the hard look at the issue" required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

That decision was the first time a federal judge has ruled that leases were improperly sold because of a failure to study fracking impacts, Cummings said.

Grewal ordered the government and the environmental groups to confer on a proposed remedy, which could be either invalidating the 2011 leases or halting any drilling on the land until a study is prepared.

The two sides originally had an April 15 deadline for submitting a proposal, but Grewal last week extended it to May 15.

David Christy, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Central California District, said the agency had no immediate comment on Thursday's lawsuit.

"We'll have to review it with the Department of Justice," Christy said.

Fracking is the practice of directing large volumes of water mixed with chemicals and sand at underground rock at high pressure in order to fracture the rock and allow oil and natural gas to flow into underground reservoirs.

Advocates of fracking say it can help to meet the nation's energy needs, while opponents claim it contaminates groundwater that is used as drinking water and in agriculture; pollutes the air; adds to global warming by releasing methane; and increases earthquake risks.

The land leased in both sales lies over the Monterey Shale Formation, which encompasses 1,750 square miles in the Central Valley and Central and Southern California.

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2011 estimated that the formation contains 15 billion barrels of shale oil, or about 64 percent of the nation's total shale oil reserve in the lower 48 states.

In the 2011 auction, the Bureau of Land Management sold the leases on 2,463 acres in Monterey County and 240 acres in Fresno County to four energy development companies and agents for $263,000.

In the three-county sale in 2012, the agency sold leases on 17,833 acres to 15 companies for $104,000. The highest price was $23,200 paid by West Coast Land Service of Bakersfield for a 2,320-acre parcel in Monterey County.

Christy said that if the companies find oil or gas in the shale and begin extracting it, they must pay a 12.5 percent royalty, divided equally between the federal and state governments, on their revenue.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the bureau and newly appointed U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the bureau.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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