Bureau of Land Management Approves Oil Drilling in Carrizo Plain

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A spectacular spring wildflower display in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Vic Bedoian.

By Vic Bedoian

The Bureau of Land Management recently approved a new oil well and pipeline in Carrizo Plain National Monument. The oil well hasn’t operated for nearly 20 years and was slated to be abandoned. Environmental advocates say oil drilling violates the monument’s management plan and is part of the Trump administration’s overall strategy for resource extraction on public lands.

In Carrizo Plain National Monument, the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wants to bring back a zombie oil well from the dead.

Tucked in between the San Andreas Fault and the Caliente Mountains at the southern edge of the Central Valley, Carrizo Plain is the last vestige of California’s native grasslands and is populated with spectacular spring wildflowers along with endangered species of birds and mammals. On its southern flank sits an oil field that was grandfathered in when the monument was first established in 2001.

The zombie well in question, which hasn’t been in production since the 1950s, owns a tortured history. Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padre Forest Watch, explains, “The well was initially proposed back in 2012, and then the oil company instead sought to completely, uh, withdraw the project and abandoned the area and reclaim it to natural conditions.

“And then they decided to reverse that reversal a couple of years ago when they first approved the well, and now here we are faced with an approval of the same well, once again.”

When the California BLM withdrew its original approval of the well last year, it directed its Bakersfield Field Office to substantially revise the environmental assessment and consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the BLM’s new decision continues to disregard significant environmental impacts and potential harm to the conservation values of the monument.

The oil well and pipeline would harm threatened and endangered wildlife and mar scenic views. This fossil fuel development would violate several laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as the monument’s resource-management plan.

Inside the western boundary of Carrizo Plain National Monument, in the area where the Bureau of Land Management has approved an oil well and pipeline. Photo courtesy of Los Padres Forest Watch.

The drilling plan was brought back to life in 2019 by the BLM. After environmental groups objected, the plan was tabled by the agency’s state director, who agreed with the objections raised.

Lisa Belenky is senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, “The state director said, ‘you didn’t do enough to explain how this might affect climate, and you didn’t look at those issues appropriately.’ And the state director also said, ‘you didn’t appropriately look at the Endangered Species Act issues.’” 

The BLM’s Bakersfield office was told to go back to the drawing board. The new plan was released a few weeks ago. Environmental groups say the new plan still does not quell their concerns about threats to endangered species and greenhouse gas emissions.

Oil drilling, even of one well, has multiple environmental impacts including emitting tons of greenhouse gases and the use of massive volumes of water for production. This is a water-scarce region.

Kuyper contends oil drilling would violate the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He says the BLM’s plan also undercuts the monument’s own management plan.

“You know, when it really comes down to it,” says Kuyper, “we have a guiding management plan that the Bureau of Land Management approved for the Carrizo Plain National Monument several years ago. And it makes it quite clear that, even though it grandfathered in some existing oil wells that are inside the monument boundary, there should be a gradual phaseout of oil drilling on the Carrizo Plain National Monument.”

Environmental advocates are mystified by the BLM’s decision to revive oil production in one of the lowest-producing fields in the state, and one reportedly nearing the end of its useful life.

Attorney Belenky expresses concern, “The Trump administration’s irrational decision to approve oil drilling in this spectacular place ignores climate change, imperils rare wildlife, and contradicts the monument’s conservation purpose. Instead of expanding oil and gas drilling, we need to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground and turn to renewable energy sources.”

Looking forward, Belenky fears this decision by the BLM could set a precedent of allowing oil drilling within Carrizo Plain National Monument on other existing leases. The Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres Forest Watch are weighing their options for future actions, possibly a federal court challenge, to reverse the BLM’s decision.

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Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@gmail.com.