Appeals Court Sets Aside California County’s Drilling-Permit Law

(CN) – A California appeals court on Tuesday struck down a county ordinance that would have allowed the drilling of thousands of new oil wells. 

The Fifth Appellate Disrict ruled Tuesday that a Kern County ordinance allowing changes to oil zoning regulations will be set aside until the county can prove that it complies with the law. The decision says the analysis done by county officials on the ordinance’s potential environmental impact was incomplete and did not fully outline the kind of harm that the oil drilling efforts could have on local environments.

Pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

The ordinance, which was originally passed in 2015, has been repeatedly challenged by environmental and farming advocacy groups since its original approval. Led by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, the groups say the ordinance was drafted and funded by the oil industry, and that it could cause untold damage to the environmental health of roughly 2.3 million acres of land. 

The groups allege that Kern County officials had a responsibility to the public to properly disclose the kind of influence that the ordinance would have on local environments but neglected to do so.

Writing for a three-person panel, Judge Donald Franson largely agreed with the bulk of these challenges. Franson found that the ordinance directly violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not completely and fairly assessing its environmental impact. He said that county officials instead relied on a study that was fundamentally flawed to get the ordinance passed.

The ruling notes that key components of a quality environmental impact assessment, such as how the ordinance would influence water usage, local air pollution and the degradation of farmland, are notably absent in the environmental evaluation used to support the ordinance.

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says this ruling should serve as a reminder to officials on the importance of transparency and honesty when it comes to the potential damage that these kinds of projects can pose to public wellbeing.

“This is a huge victory for our health and climate,” Kretzmann said in a statement. “The court ruled that Kern County violated the law when it fast-tracked more oil and gas development and hid the immense harm caused by drilling. It’s time for state officials to come clean about how much damage this polluting industry is doing to our environment and public health.”

Tuesday’s ruling requires the county to cease issuing oil and drilling permits under the ordinance within 30 days. It also means that environmental review of future drilling proposals will once more be evaluated by state authorities and not Kern County officials.

Colin O’Brien, a staff attorney at Earthjustice who argued the case, says that this ruling serves as a big win for those hoping to see more honest and accurate assessments of how oil and gas projects influence our natural environment.

“Kern County failed to solve drastic water supply and air quality problems when it passed an ordinance written by oil and gas companies to favor the industry over the health of local families. Today the court rightfully told them to go back to the drafting table,” O’Brien said in a statement. “Oil and gas operations compete with families and farmers for scarce fresh water supplies and they pump deadly air pollutants into the Central Valley. Those impacts can’t be ignored.”

Representatives for Kern County did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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