Caught in the middle of an escalating conflict between the local oil and ag industries, the Kern County Board of Supervisors made plans Tuesday to take over environmental reviews of Kern oil projects.
It was unclear which sector, if either, emerged with the upper hand -- and supervisors carefully tried to avoid the appearance of choosing sides.
"My desire is that ag and oil will mutually flourish," Supervisor Mike Maggard said.
If things proceed as a majority of the board said they wanted, it could fundamentally change permitting of local drilling work by making it more responsive to local concerns, especially from farmers and environmentalists.
On one level, Tuesday's discussion centered on local control of land-use decisions, a notion Supervisors Maggard, Ray Watson, Karen Goh and Jon McQuiston said they support.
But it also involved claims that oil companies that own mineral rights under prime local farmland are brushing aside farmers' concerns about water quality.
"We recognize their (mineral) rights but we need to have fair treatment at the table," farmer Paul Nugent told the board.
Farmers also raised accusations that state regulators have been conducting sham reviews that fail to take into account the cumulative effects of multiple oil projects in concentrated farming areas.
These same claims have surfaced in a series of recent lawsuits filed by environmental groups and farmers alleging that the state Department of Conservation and its Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources regularly fail to conduct adequate environmental reviews of oil projects on Kern farmland.
Ultimately, county supervisors on Tuesday ordered staff to return Dec. 11 with a report on what would be required to change a county zoning ordinance that in 1986 made the state responsible for conducting California Environmental Quality Act reviews of Kern oil projects. Though it contained some conditions, the ordinance essentially made oil projects a "by-right" privilege of mineral rights owners.
County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt agreed to prepare the report but warned that the process of making the county the lead agency on CEQA reviews could take 18 months and cost up to $5 million.
The key questions are who would pay for that process and what rights would be left to property owners versus mineral rights owners.
After Tuesday's board discussion, the Western States Petroleum Association issued a statement that it is "premature" for the county to pursue becoming the lead agency on local CEQA reviews "without first having substantive discussions with the state and all stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry."
Les Clark, executive vice president of Bakersfield's Independent Oil Producers Agency, said he supports local control of oil project reviews but that there needs to be a determination of what that would mean for the industry.
"I don't have a problem with sitting down and talking with anybody," he said.
Chief Deputy Director Jason Marshall of the state Department of Conservation said in a written statement Tuesday, "We are supportive of a review of the permitting processes but we have no preconceived notion of what the outcome should be."
The department's director, Mark Nechodom, recently told local oil industry representatives that he expects to see changes made in the way the state reviews oil projects. He declined to be specific other than to reassure the industry that there would be no big surprises.
At last week's Board of Supervisors meeting, Marshall and industry representatives asked the board for permission to begin talking with Oviatt about a change in the permitting process. It was never clearly stated what the discussion might entail or how it might proceed.
That discussion, which was not mentioned on the board's agenda, led to fireworks Tuesday as Bakersfield attorney George Martin, representing a group of local farmers, pointedly accused board Chairman Zack Scrivner of a "clear violation of the Brown Act," which governs public meetings. Scrivner had declined to put Martin's clients on the Nov. 6 board agenda but allowed the request by oil industry associations.
"We should've been here to address it," Martin said, adding, "It's our land and we want to be in the room."
No action was taken last week on the oil associations' request. Scrivner said nothing in his own defense Tuesday, and County Counsel Theresa Goldner was not asked to address Martin's accusation.