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Kern County sues Newsom over oil and gas development permits

The county claims California's governor has been illegally blocking approval of numerous oil and gas permits.

(CN) --- Kern County, California, claims in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials have been illegally delaying or blocking the issuance of permits for oil and gas development involving certain extraction methods, including fracking.

The plaintiff, California’s largest oil and gas producing region, claims Newsom has been “arbitrary and capricious” in blocking statutorily authorized methods of oil and gas extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — and high pressure cyclic steam injection. The county claims Newsom even fired a state official for enforcing the law contrary to his "professed 'values.'"

According to the 33-page complaint, Newsom and a group of unelected bureaucrats have improperly delayed the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) from reviewing and issuing new oil and gas permits, while "unilaterally" deciding, without the authority to do so, that the threat posed by climate change warrants the "elimination of California’s oil and gas industry."

The county alleges Newsom and other defendents are refusing to follow both statutory mandates and CalGEM's own regulations.

In doing so, Newsom has been currying favor with political supporters who adamantly oppose the continued use of fossil fuels, while disregarding the impact it will have on Kern County residents, the lawsuit claims.

Kern County has 23,900 residents whose livelihoods rely on the county’s 76 active oilfields, and denying new oil and gas lease permits could cause irreparable harm to residents and to the county itself by diminishing its tax base, according to the complaint.

“Headlines and political maneuvering aside, California’s demand for hydrocarbon-based energy vastly exceeds, and is projected to continue to exceed, its in-state supplies for decades,” the lawsuit states. “Newsom’s unilateral curtailment of California’s in-state supply of the oil and gas needed to fuel California’s economy necessarily will increase dependence on foreign imports.”

The county alleges that this increased dependance on foreign oil imports will have a negative impact on carbon emissions because many oil producing countries maintain far lower standards for oil and gas extraction than California does.

According to the complaint, California imported nearly 150 million barrels of crude oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2019. Both countries ranked in the lower half of all countries in the Yale University Environmental Performance Index for 2020.

In recent years, new drilling technologies have been a major source for oil and gas producers. One such technology is hydraulic fracturing, a politically contentious method involving mixing fluids with another material — typically sand — then injecting that substance at a high pressure into a well to open fissures and extract oil and gas. Another technology, enhanced oil recovery, involves steam or water being injected into a well to reduce oil viscosity and improve the flow without altering the permeability of the nearby ground, according to the complaint.

Kern County claims Newsom has caved to political pressure and turned his back on these technologies it relies on.

The plaintiff also notes that Newsom himself has long recognized that curtailing oil and gas production in the state would require explicit approval by the California state legislature, but alleges that he has pushed these restrictions irrespective of his legal ability to do so.

According to the plaintiff, less than 30% of California’s total petroleum demand is supplied from in-state sources such as Kern County, while more than 70% is already being imported from the Middle East, South America, Africa and Alaska via pollutant-emitting waterborne supertankers. The complaint adds that in 2019 Kern County was California’s top oil-producing county and the seventh largest oil producer in the country.

“In fiscal year 2018-2019 the Kern County oil and gas sector paid over $197 million in taxes, including $80.5 million to the county, $103.8 million to Kern County school districts, $12.2 million to fire, police, water and other special districts, and $600,000 to incorporated cities," the complaint states. "If the oil and gas sector did not exist, the County would lose 7.4% of its total general fund revenue, 13% of its total County fire fund revenue, 85.1% of its funding for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and 7.6% of total funding for the Kern Mosquito and Vector Control District.”

In 2015, Newsom’s predecessor, former California Governor Jerry Brown, rejected the same calls to clamp down on oil and gas extraction which Newsom now heeds, saying: “California imports 70% of our petroleum products; our cars drive 330 billion miles mostly on petroleum. If we reduce our oil drilling in California … we’ll import more oil by train or by boat [and] that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Brown, who is also a Democrat, surmised that rather than restricting oil and gas production in the state, the better course of action would be convincing consumers to buy electric vehicles and encouraging large property developers to build more efficient buildings equipped with renewable energy sources.

Kern County is asking the court to keep Newsom from banning well stimulation treatments, high pressure cyclic steam injection, and similar extraction technologies and from delaying CalGEM's processing of permits.

Officials from Kern County and the governor’s office could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening.

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Categories / Economy, Energy, Environment, Government, Law

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