President Bill Clinton created the Carrizo Plain National Monument in 2001. It is California’s largest remaining natural grassland and home to numerous sensitive and rare species of plants and animals. The Russell oil field in the monument’s southwestern corner was allowed to remain, although the wells had not been used for many years until the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under President Donald Trump approved a permit there for an oil well and pipeline.
Jeff Kuyper of Los Padres ForestWatch says that worried him, “That was really important because it would’ve been the first new oil well to have been approved in that protected area since it was established in 2001. So, it was certainly a threat to the ecosystem and a threat to the recreation values of the area.”
Los Padres ForestWatch joined the Center for Biological Diversity and sued the BLM in late 2020. The lawsuit aimed to prevent harm to threatened and endangered wildlife and flora from proposed fossil fuel extraction.
The complaint stated that the BLM was violating the monument’s resource-management plan, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit also said that the BLM had failed to protect monument resources in managing oil drilling in the national monument, including promptly capping and remediating old wells and facilities that have not produced oil in decades.
“This is a place for wildflowers, California condors and kit foxes, not oil wells,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s wonderful to see the fossil fuel era coming to an end here, which will benefit all the rare plants and animals of this stunning landscape.”
Under the Biden administration, the BLM reached a settlement with conservation groups. Under this agreement, the BLM will conduct an environmental assessment of the area and order E&B Natural Resources Management Corporation to cease drilling on the land.
But Kuyper says that’s not all. “We were also able to negotiate an additional aspect where the oil company would remove 11 long-term defunct oil wells that have been sitting in the national monument, essentially in a non-functional state for years, sometimes decades.”
Kuyper insists the abandoned wells can leak methane, which is a major greenhouse gas. The wells can also contaminate surface and groundwater and pose hazards for wildlife. The government says the company must remove all its old oil drilling infrastructure by 2028.
Kuyper says the plan now is to restore Carrizo Plains’ natural beauty. “It no longer makes sense to expand oil drilling in such a pristine and wild landscape that’s important to so many people. How can we turn the tide and work toward eventually restoring the area?”
The well sites are in the Caliente Mountains inside the western boundary of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, a 204,000-acre protected area that is home to several unique species, including threatened San Joaquin antelope squirrels, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and an endangered flowering plant called the Kern mallow.