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Public Hearing on Fracking in Valley Not Recorded - 'I Feel Like The Process Is Rigged'

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
Audience members hold up signs protesting hydraulic fracturing on public lands during a public meeting held by the Bureau of Land Management in Bakersfield on May 21, 2019.

“Absurd,” “insulting,” and “insane” were some of the many critiques levied during a public meeting in Bakersfield on Tuesday night against a recent Bureau of Land Management environmental analysis, which brings the agency one step closer to opening over a million acres of federal land to hydraulic fracturing.

The analysis, a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released in April, found no significant impacts associated with fracking the region, which includes land along parts of the Central Coast and in Kern, Fresno, Kings, Madera, and Tulare Counties. “The federal government has reaffirmed that hydraulic fracturing is a safe method of production in California,” wrote a spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association in an email statement.

Tuesday’s public meeting in Bakersfield was the first of three this week to address the analysis, and it drew roughly 150 attendees from across the San Joaquin Valley and at least as far north as Merced County.

The majority of the dozens of commenters at the meeting spoke out against the analysis and the prospect of increased fracking in the region, expressing concerns about air pollution, drinking water quality, and climate change. Many attended a rally ahead of the meeting, hosted by the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental advocacy groups.

Fernando Serrano of Porterville worries about emissions from oil and gas wells and production machinery. “Where I live it’s already one of the worst air qualities in the country,” he said during an interview. “It’s already an environmental disaster. This will make it even worse.”

Many of those who spoke to support the BLM’s analysis, including petroleum industry workers and Kern County employees, were heckled, including Tom Creswell, a chemical engineer in Bakersfield who voiced concern that the air emissions from the oil and gas industry have been overblown. “Yes, the air is bad here,” he said in an interview after the meeting, but he said he considers petroleum to be an environmentally responsible industry. “We can’t make a mess in our own neighborhood. We have to drink water and breathe air, right? So it’s just in simple self-interest that you’ve got to take care of things.”

Tempers at the meeting also flared for what many attendees viewed as a lack of accountability from the BLM. The agency did not record the meeting, instead inviting attendees to submit written comments online, electronically, and only in English. Despite assurances ahead of the meeting, the BLM did not set up a computer station for attendees to submit their comments directly online—apparently due to a lack of internet service. The agency also did not supply interpreting services in any language other than American Sign Language.

“I feel like the processed is rigged,” said Springville resident Cherie Flint during her public comment and during an interview after the meeting. “I really feel like they just want to say, ‘we opened it for public comment and now we’re going to go do what we want.’”

The non-profit advocacy groups Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and Central California Environmental Justice Network hired a court reporter to transcribe the meeting so public comments can be submitted online.

In an interview after the meeting, Gabe Garcia, manager of the BLM's Bakersfield field office, says it's uncommon for the agency to hold hearings on the public record—partly because the agency has been criticized in the past for mischaracterizing verbal comments. “We want to make sure that we’re capturing their comments in their entirety and really capturing what they mean,” he says. “So put your comments in writing for us so that we have them for the record.”

He also says language interpretation at public meetings can become a slippery slope: Sure, it may seem straightforward to provide Spanish interpretation, but what about residents who need other languages?

Garcia stresses that the BLM analysis alone does not immediately greenlight fracking on federal lands in this region. “This is a step in the process,” he says. “It’s a 30,000 foot look at: Are there impacts that we can’t mitigate for? We haven’t seen those yet.” He also reiterates that the BLM itself doesn’t regulate fracking, and that any company hoping to use the technique on this land will need to follow the regulatory process laid out by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

The public comment period on the BLM’s draft environmental analysis ends on June 10. Garcia expects the agency to release its final version this fall.

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