Farmers Seek to Reverse Kern County’s Loosened Restrictions on Oil Exploration

The Kern County Board of Supervisors just made it easier for the oil industry to drill new wells without subjecting those projects to an environmental review.

Bakersfield, California, Kern County seat and heart of the Kern School District. (Photo by AAARoads via Wikipedia)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — The Kern County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday to reinstate a streamlined process for obtaining local oil drilling permits, angering environmentalists and prompting concerns about the health impact on nearby minority communities.

The new process amends an existing county ordinance approving new oil and gas exploration and the drilling of 2,697 new oil wells in a 3,700 square mile section of the county. The area in question is predominately used by farmers for agriculture and under the newly approved process, no further environmental reviews would be required for projects going forward.

Oil and gas developers will be able to drill on nearly all the county’s unincorporated land inside the project area if the new permitting system is upheld by the court. The system was previously in place from 2015 to 2020 and netted the county more than $136 million in fees paid to various organizations, such as a local air-quality fund, before being struck down by the courts.

“In February 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued a lengthy decision holding that the EIR violated CEQA in multiple ways,” according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the county by Gardiner Farms. “The Superior Court thereafter issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the Board to set aside its approval of the 2015 Ordinance, its certification of the EIR, and its approval of related findings and statement of overriding considerations.”

Gardiner Farms filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Kern County Superior Court seeking injunctive relief to reverse the Board of Supervisors decision. The company claims the board ignored overwhelming opposition in order to rubber stamp the new permitting process and didn’t demand a comprehensive environmental review to determine its impacts.

“It seems the county hasn’t learned its lesson,” said Keith Gardiner, whose company also filed a successful lawsuit against the county last year overturning a previous version of the oil permitting system. “We must again turn to the courts to protect our farmland.”

In their lawsuit, Gardiner Farms claims that several serious errors remain in the environmental report approved by the county and say mitigation measures proposed to address their concerns are wholly ineffective.

Gardiner concedes that he collects oil royalties from his land and isn’t opposed to the industry but believes county officials shouldn’t “place oil over ag.”

Meanwhile, local oil producers and industry trade groups welcomed the board’s decision. They say a less-restrictive permitting process will bring much needed jobs to the region and help ensure the state’s energy independence for the foreseeable future.

They believe it’s better to drill in Kern County where workers receive a living wage and humane working conditions, rather than paying more to import oil from countries where that’s not necessarily the case.

“The Board of Supervisors’ actions today are a major step forward for environmental protection, energy security, and economic prosperity in Kern County,” said Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group. “It assures the public that energy is produced here locally under the toughest environmental protections on the planet rather than tankered in from Saudi Arabia.

“It requires our industry to pay hundreds of millions of dollars that will be reinvested in our community for clean water, retrofitting school buses and farm equipment, and fighting rural crime in exchange for a predictable process.”

Not everyone agreed, however, and more than a hundred respondents voiced concerns during the board’s virtual meeting Monday, many of them from outside the county.

Board Supervisor Leticia Perez claimed more clean energy is produced in Kern County than anywhere else in the country and took exception to Southern California residents complaining about the board’s decision. “To me it’s more than ironic,” she said. “It’s offensive.”

Among the more contentious issues under debate was the impact on local minority communities living near the site in question, such as Arvin and Wasco.

Proponents believe the relaxed restrictions on oil exploration and drilling will create new, high paying jobs in minority communities and provide a viable career path for those in need.

Opponents said those are the same people most at risk of health issues caused by oil drilling. Citing numerous studies that describe increased incidence of respiratory and other health problems caused by nearby drilling, one speaker called it a matter of “environmental segregation” because most of the residents near the proposed sites are Hispanic.

“I don’t know how some of you can actually sleep enough with the new proposal. Haven’t we done enough to … frontline communities?” wondered Santa Cruz County resident Barbara Anderson, about minority communities living in proximity to oil fields.

On the other hand, local resident Danny Garcia said he “made it from the bottom to the top” thanks the opportunities afforded him by the local oil industry while praising the board’s decision.

Kern County officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by press time.

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