Kern County has 75% of California’s oil drilling, 95% of its fracking, a large low-income, nonwhite population, some of the worst air pollution in the country and a month-old zoning change that permits new drilling projects without environmental review for the next 20 years.
Last week, a coalition of environmental and social justice groups sued the county (pdf) in Superior Court to block the zoning amendment approved unanimously by the county supervisors that authorizes “the development of up to 3,647 new oil and gas wells and extensive associated construction and operational activities, each year for 20 to 25 or more years, without any further, site-specific assessment of those activities’ health and other environmental impacts.”
Stanley Geis, an attorney with Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit, thinks the county can’t do that sort of thing. “It’s truly amazing, especially when we have laws—and we have good laws in California—that say you don’t get to put up a project that has potentially significant impacts without properly studying it,” he told ThinkProgress.
The county says it has abided by state law, using the vaunted California Environmental Quality Act’s (CEQA) project-level review to approve in one fell-swoop what could amount to 72,940 new wells over two decades. CEQA project reviews are generally aimed at single projects like a road or a supermarket.
County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt told the board at its meeting on November 9 that the new “ministerial permits” would be automatically approved if the applicant complies with the new rules.
The county had assistance in thinking outside the box, and perhaps the law, to cut through the bloated bureaucracy and streamline the permit process—the oil and gas industry.
The Bakersfield Californian reported last month that three oil industry groups spent $10 million on drafting the proposal adopted by the supervisors. “We’re exceptionally pleased with not only the county staff’s effort that they put into the development of this project, but now, as well, the board’s unanimous approval,” Suzanne Noble, vice president of production regions for the Western States Petroleum Association, reportedly said at the meeting.
The plaintiffs were joined in spirit, although not in the lawsuit, by so-called “split estate” farmers who own the land but not the mineral rights beneath it. The new zoning essentially cuts them out of negotiations over drilling on their property. Lawyers for Wasco-area almond grower King and Gardiner Farms filed a separate lawsuit last week, challenging the zoning amendment for lack of compliance with CEQA.
Kern County officials have long had to balance the interests of farmers and drilling interests while fending off complaints from social justice and environmental groups. But the balance struck in the past has been upset by the plunging price of oil in international markets.
A year ago, the county assessor’s office warned of a dire, imminent budget shortfall because the price of oil had fallen from $99 a barrel to $72, devaluing property and slashing tax collections. The board of supervisors declared a fiscal emergency in January when the price of oil hit $50 and made plans to tap the county’s emergency $40-million reserve.