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More than 3,000 residents submitted comments to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during a public comment period that ended last week.

People from all walks of life and across the political spectrum voiced concerns about the impacts of fossil-fuel drilling and fracking on environmental safety, public health and quality of life.

A recent editorial by the Times did not celebrate this show of unity and democracy. In a move straight out of the oil industry’s playbook, the public is told there’s nothing to worry about.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Consider the enormity of the BLM’s study. The agency is gathering public input on the impacts of drilling and fracking on 1.6 million acres — 2,500 square miles — of federal land and mineral estate across eight counties in Central California, including 122,000 acres — 190 square miles — in Santa Barbara County. The BLM has never conducted such an analysis before, and the results will be used for the next two decades to help guide where, and if fracking could occur in this county.

Places like Tepusquet Canyon, the Cuyama Valley, Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Purisima Hills, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and lands adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest are all at stake, because the BLM is classifying them as open to drilling and fracking.

The public has concerns about drilling and fracking, and this was a rare opportunity to express those concerns directly to the BLM. We did, in large numbers, showing people care deeply about this issue.

The BLM claims “there’s no interest” on the part of oil companies to develop these sites. But drilling is heavily influenced by oil markets, technology and regional regulations. What has been economically, technically or politically infeasible in the past could be quite likely in the future.

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Yet the Times seems content with taking a BLM official’s statement at face value by concluding that “the perceived threat of an explosion of local oil development” is “significantly diminished.” Given potential health and quality of life impacts, the widespread public outcry is appropriate.

Scientific studies show a strong link between fracking and impacts to environmental and human health, including contamination of groundwater, air and noise pollution, and seismic activity. The Times claims that they are only “loosely linked” to fracking, but the evidence is clear.

For example, an independent report concludes fracking in California happens at unusually shallow depths, dangerously close to underground water supplies, with unusually high concentrations of chemicals, including dangerous substances.

The Times also editorializes that the BLM was not “withholding information from local interests.” The facts suggest otherwise. The BLM waited until halfway through the comment period to publish raw mapping data showing which parcels could be opened to drilling and fracking. That raw data was still not usable by the public. ForestWatch had to plug it into technical mapping software to generate an interactive map the public could easily view to determine which lands were impacted. The process has been anything but transparent.

A BLM official stated to the Times that the public should focus on submitting scientific and technical data during the comment period. Statements like these discourage public participation, and are disheartening. The point of public scoping is to gather information to help determine which issues the agency should evaluate in its environmental study. The public has a critical role to play in identifying important issues.

We believe democracy functions best when agencies are transparent, and when the public is given a full and fair opportunity to express views. Residents should be encouraged to participate at every stage of the process, especially the early stages. That’s the best opportunity to make a difference, to change the agency’s direction before it goes too far down the wrong path.

We are thankful for the thousands who took the time to learn more about the BLM’s fracking analysis, and to convey their thoughts and concerns to the agency.

Let us all remain vigilant as the BLM moves ahead with it study. The fate of our region’s public lands depends on it.

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Jeff Kuyper is executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, a community-supported nonprofit that protects the Los Padres National Forest and other public Central Coast lands.

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