Kern County is kicking off a months-long review that could fundamentally change government oversight of petroleum production in the heart of California oil country.
The county's Planning and Community Development Department plans Friday to issue a "notice of preparation" asking individuals and organizations to offer suggestion about topics to be addressed as part of an environmental impact review. A final vote on the review is scheduled for next summer.
The industry-funded review is a key element in the county's plan to amend its zoning ordinance dealing with oil and gas production. If successful, the effort would make the county the primary permitting authority in local oil production; currently, that role belongs to the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
In recent years, environmental groups have attacked the state's review of oil projects in the county, saying Sacramento regulators give minimal consideration to the cumulative impacts of local drilling.
State regulators and the oil industry have offered strong support for the county's proposal to create a strictly administrative permit process consisting of checklists and standardized environmental mitigation measures, but no public hearings.
County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt told a meeting of about five dozen oil regulators and industry representatives Thursday that she expects the environmental reviewto be challenged in court. But if the document withstands scrutiny, she said, its opponents will have no further opportunities to contest the process.
Oviatt told the group that the proposed zoning amendment would cover everything the industry does in Kern County. She said it would be site-specific, taking into account localized conditions such as underground water quality and quantity.
Already the effort is being viewed with skepticism by environmental groups.
San Luis Obispo lawyer Babak Naficy, who has represented the Sierra Club in lawsuits against the Department of Conservation, said the good news is that primary responsibility for reviewing local oil projects would be taken away from state regulators with little understanding of local conditions.
But Naficy said there is also a concern that the county's desire to help the local economy will override environmental considerations. More specifically, he said broad mitigation measures will be required that don't truly address site impacts.
"That's where we're going to get into a big fight with (the county)," he said.
A representative of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the oil industry's most litigious opponents, charged that it was inappropriate for the county to allow unconventional oil extraction techniques to continue while it conducts this "long overdue study."
Kern's top oil regulator, Burt Ellison, district deputy with the state oil division, called the notice of preparation "encouraging," in that it signals that the process of changing permitting authority is moving forward.
As part of its notice of preparation, the county has scheduled four public meetings to solicit ideas for the review's scope. The first is Sept. 16 in Lost Hills, followed by Sept. 18 in Taft, Sept. 23 in Bakersfield and Sept. 25 in Shafter.