The federal government announced Thursday that it has leased nearly 18,000 acres of public land in Northern California for oil and gas exploration, angering environmentalists who fear an uptick in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."
Many of the 15 parcels in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties overlie the Monterey Shale, the largest oil-rich formation of its kind in the nation. While none of the oil companies involved in the federal auction announced their intentions to use fracking, the energy industry has touted the potential of the technology to tap previously unreachable fossil fuels in the shale formation.
Four firms paid between $2 and $10 an acre, with the federal government netting $104,099 from the leases.
Fracking involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand deep into the earth to break apart rock and release crude, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently projected that the process would lead to a sharp rise in U.S. oil production in the coming decades.
Environmentalists, however, have raised concerns about potential environmental and public health hazards, including contaminated drinking water. Unlike other oil-producing states, California does not have disclosure rules for fracking, meaning companies do not have to report what chemicals they inject or where they employ the procedure.
"It’s essentially the lawless Wild West when it comes to fracking in our state, leaving us at the mercy of the oil and gas industry," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity and Kristin Lynch of Food & Water Watch in a statement.
The organizations joined other environmental groups in filing formal protests with the federal Bureau of Land Management, arguing that regulators had failed to consider the potential impacts of fracking in their environmental reviews of the public land.
The energy industry has said oil firms have used the procedure for decades in California without incident.
"The science that is supporting the safety of hydraulic fracturing in California is unambiguous," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Assn. "There is not a single incident that we’re aware of in which hydraulic fracturing has been suspected of causing harm to the environment in California."
-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento