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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Kern County Blasted for Oil Drilling Plan

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - Environmental groups sued Kern County for a zoning revision they say will allow the oil industry to drill 73,000 new oil wells in unincorporated areas - 10 a day for 20 years.

Among the severe and illegal shortcomings of the new county ordinance is that it treats the drilling of 72,490 oil and gas wells on 2.3 million acres for 20 years as a single project, the local and national environmental groups say.

The Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Bakersfield-based Greenfield Walking Group sued the county, its Board of Supervisors and its planning and development department on Thursday in Superior Court. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined as plaintiffs. It is the Top Download at Courthouse News on Monday.

The Western States Petroleum Association, California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Independent Oil Producers Agency are named as real parties in interest.

"The oil industry is trying to fast-track permitting for thousands of oil wells," plaintiffs' attorney William Rostov told Courthouse News.

"It's unfortunate that the Board of Supervisors went along with the oil industry on this. Our clients feel they have no other recourse but to take it to court."

Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, already has some of the worst air pollution in the country, from oil drilling, pesticides, dust and microparticulates, and ozone from auto and farm machinery exhaust.

The rezoning violated the California Environmental Quality Act, one of whose purposes is to educate the public about projects in their vicinity, Rostov said.

He said the new ordinance would drastically transform Kern County and have a "tremendous effect" on water and air quality. The county knows about the impacts, but did not properly analyze them, he said.

"This is a very important case that could affect Kern for decades to come," Rostov said. "We think we have a very good case."

According to the lengthy complaint: "Proposed and paid for by the oil industry, the ordinance and the accompanying final environmental impact report ('Final EIR') purport to authorize the development of up to 3,647 new oil and gas wells and extensive associated construction and operation activities, each year for 20 to 25 more years, without any further, site-specific assessment of those activities' health and other environmental impacts. The ordinance jeopardizes the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people across Kern County."

Kern County, population 839,631, at the southern end of the Central Valley. Nearly the size of New Jersey, it extends from Delano, its northernmost city, south to the Tehachapi Mountains, east into the Mojave Desert and west across the San Joaquin Valley.

Its two biggest industries are agriculture and oil and gas development. Kern produces one-tenth of the nation's petroleum and is the top oil-producing county in California, with 81 percent of the state's active oil wells.

That number will surge drastically if the amended ordinance, approved on Nov. 9, is allowed to stand, the environmentalists say.

The county estimates that 10 new wells will be built each day for the next 20 years - 72,940 of them. Related infrastructure, such as new well pads and pipelines, will cover 2.3 million acres, all without further environmental review, according to the complaint.


"Such extensive industrial development will dramatically transform the character of Kern County and will expose the county's residents and natural resources to all manner of significant harm," the plaintiffs say.

Kern is ecologically diverse, containing several rivers, mountains, orchards, croplands and grazing land. It includes several protected areas, including the Kern Wildlife Refuge and parts of Los Padres National Forest, and is home to 166 threatened or endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, California condor, and blunt nosed leopard lizard.

It also has some of the worst air quality in the country. Land designated for the project area is already at extreme nonattainment for federal ozone and fine particulate matter standards and state coarse particulate matter standards. Many towns are among the nation's most threatened by pollution, and 122,000 residents, most of them Latino and other people of color, already live within a mile of an oil well, the complaint states.

The county has been hit hard by drought. Most if its groundwater basins, which are under the project area, are overdrawn and classified as "high priority" for conservation, according to the complaint.

Though oil and gas production are partly to blame for decreased groundwater levels and water shortages, the plaintiffs say, the Board of Supervisors in January 2013 began developing the proposed ordinance at the behest of oil and gas companies.

"The ordinance's defining feature is its adoption of a so-called 'ministerial' permitting process for new oil and gas wells," which requires the county to determine whether a permit meets the ordinance's requirements and grant it within seven business days, according to the complaint.

By designating the unincorporated areas a single project, the county could use the ministerial process to approve up to 3,647 wells a year for the next two decades, the complaint states.

The environmentalists say this bodes ill for a county already suffocating in smog.

Air pollution from oil and gas drilling, pre-production emissions of methane, benzene, nitrogen oxides and silica dust and other toxins released during production will threaten the public health - especially in communities of color, which are "already disproportionately exposed to such activities," the complaint states.

Exposure to these pollutants can cause severe respiratory problems, cardiovascular damage, birth defects, cancer, and premature death, according to the complaint.

Fracking and wastewater disposal through injection wells contaminate the shrinking water supply and remove large volumes of fresh water from municipal and agricultural use, and can induce earthquakes, the plaintiffs say.

Communities will be exposed to "serious noise and light pollution," which can cause sleep disturbances and poor work and school performance, and plants and animals will face habitat destruction and increased mortality rates from grading, construction, pollution, and truck traffic.

Despite the numerous significant, unavoidable impacts identified in the county's final environmental impact report, including greenhouse gas emissions, water shortages, and conversion of "prime" and "unique" farmland to industrial use, the report does not actually analyze the project's environmental impacts, the plaintiffs say.

They dispute the county's claim that the ordinance's "one-size-fits-all" approach to mitigation will ease the severity of other deleterious impacts, such as exposing children and the elderly to worsening air quality; degrading the habitat of special-status wildlife; injury or death from rupturing earthquake faults; and degraded water quality.

Though the ordinance will have major long-term impacts on the county's people, the plaintiffs say, the county made public participation nearly impossible by giving people just 60 days to review the 1,800-page draft report and its 6,000 pages of appendices, and only 30 days to review the final impact report.

Nor did the county translate its report into Spanish, though many residents speak only that language and live in communities that will bear a disproportionate share of the project's pollution burden, according to the complaint.

The final impact report is inadequate under CEQA because, among other things, it treats the construction of nearly 73,000 wells by different permit holders across a span of 20 years as a single project; does not address expert testimony that roads will increase rather than reduce emissions; that pollution-reducing programs will be insufficient to offset the project's air quality impacts; and it ignored impacts to biological resources, such as habitat fragmentation, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs say the mitigation measures are "ineffective and invalid" because they do not establish or impose "concrete standards" that permit-holders must meet; deferred implementation of mitigation measures without explanation; and declined to adopt feasible and effective mitigation measures such as restricting the amount of wildlife habitat that can be destroyed and "protective setbacks" from schools, homes and business.

Finally, the plaintiffs say, the county arbitrarily dismissed project alternatives that would limit oil and gas development or require permit-holders to use recycled water.

County counsel Theresa Goldner defended the ordinance as "comprehensive" and "thorough" in an email to Courthouse News.

"The oil and gas ordinance is the most comprehensive and stringent local legislation ever imposed on oil and gas operations. The oil and gas EIR and the ordinance represent a new regulatory era that is good for the environment, good for the oil and gas and agricultural industries, and good for all persons who live and work in Kern County. The County will vigorously oppose these lawsuits and intends to prevail," she wrote.

The ordinance took effect on Dec. 9, and Goldner expects it to stay that way.

"These lawsuits will not stop or delay the implementation of the ordinance. The California Environmental Quality Act provides that an environmental impact report is deemed adequate unless a court determines otherwise. I am confident that the ordinance and the EIR will be upheld," she wrote. The plaintiffs ask the court to order the county to set aside the ordinance and its final impact report; withdraw all permits issued under the ordinance and not grant any more until the ordinance complies with CEQA; revise the final impact report to meet CEQA criteria and circulate it in English and Spanish.

They also seek a permanent injunction and declarations that the ordinance does not comply with CEQA and is inconsistent with Kern County's general plan.

Their attorney William Rostov is with Earthjustice in San Francisco.

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