A landmark plan to streamline Kern oil and gas permitting won unanimous approval Monday by the county Board of Supervisors, capping an intensive, three-year process giving petroleum producers unprecedented regulatory certainty in exchange for costly new measures intended to reduce the industry’s local footprint.
The board’s decision to certify a massive environmental review and amend the county’s zoning ordinance, set to take effect in 30 days, moves Kern from having virtually no role in oil and gas permitting to one in which oil producers can get local sign-off on major oil activities in as little as seven days without public hearings. Underground aspects of local oil activities will still require state review.
Controversial from the start, the permitting measure will likely face legal challenge from one if not two camps: environmentalists who say the plan does too little to protect local oil and air quality, and “split estate” farmers who own their property’s surface rights but not the underlying mineral rights.
A packed house of farmers, oil industry leaders, union officials and environmental opponents filled the board chambers and overflowed into the rotunda during the debate.
Hundreds of environmental activists from outside the county protested the measure peacefully. Many arrived by bus, wearing T-shirts reading “I stand with Kern Residents.” Few spoke at the podium, however, leaving local residents to address the board.
They were met, however, by a well-organized campaign to support the proposal on the grounds that it will strengthen the local economy, generating jobs and tax revenues.
A representative of one of three oil industry groups that invested more than $10 million in crafting the proposal called the process a “monumental effort” that will bring new certainty for oil producers.
“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,” said Suzanne Noble, vice president of production regions for the Western States Petroleum Association.
A UNIQUE TWIST
While environmental opposition might be expected for a plan to streamline oil permitting, the proposal had a unique twist in that a significant number of split-estate local farmers also opposed the measure as inadequate to protect their interests from oil companies asserting access to their land.
That conflict rose again Monday despite county attempts to balance farmers’ and oil producers’ rights. Even after eight hours of public comments and discussion, board members wrestled with questions of how to protect farmers from government and other intrusions.
Whether it was enough to avoid further conflict remains to be seen. Holly King, a representative of a group that has been critical of the permitting plan, the Committee to Protect Farmland and Clean Water, said there should be a bigger buffer between oil activity and farming activity than the proposed setback of about 200 feet.
Asked if legal action against the permitting plan is a possibility, she would say only that the group is considering its options.
Different sides in the debate on the proposed ordinance made passionate pleas to supervisors.
Environmentalists called for less petroleum extraction, not efforts to make it easier. Several noted that minority communities bear the brunt of the local industry’s pollution because they tend to live near oil fields. They also challenged the adequacy of the county’s environmental review.
Industry supporters, many wearing buttons or stickers stating, “I am the Oil Industry,” noted that oil work pays well and allows career advancement. They also pointed out that products made of oil are ubiquitous and that any transition away from reliance on petroleum is many years away.
Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt explained that the new “ministerial permits” would be approved automatically if the applicant complies with all conditions the new rules will require.
Under the proposed zoning ordinance, the surface owner would need to sign off on a drilling plan before the oil and gas developer can get a fast-track permit to develop and begin drilling.
But the new rules wouldn’t allow surface rights owners — like the farmers and land developers who have opposed the county effort — to shut down the development.
If an oil and gas developer can’t get the surface rights holder to sign off on the work, there is a longer and more expensive process the mineral rights holder can go through to get county approval without that signature, Oviatt said.
Instead of taking weeks, with a signature, the process would take months.
A CHANGE OF PLANS
Oviatt announced Monday morning there had been a substantial change in the proposed rules. Oil and gas companies without a surface owner’s signature would have been required to have a monitor on hand 24 hours a day while drilling was going on. Now, she said, the county will allow small oil developers to use video surveillance to monitor the site.
But that raised two sets of concerns. One was that if surveillance was less expensive than having an inspector on site, it had the potential to diminish oil companies’ financial incentive to reach an agreement with surface owners. It also worried farmers that the surveillance amounted to government intrusion on their right to privacy.
The proposal underwent some modification by the board Monday. It was changed so that, if the property contained a residence, then the surface property owner had the right to veto surveillance plans, thereby requiring an inspector to be on hand throughout the construction period to ensure compliance with the county’s rules.
Gordon Nipp of the Kern County-area Sierra Club argued the public hadn’t had enough time to review the oil and gas environmental report. He asked the county to postpone action Monday and extend the comment session.
Nipp said the ordinance will allow the oil and gas industry to expand the pumping of fossil fuels that create climate change and threaten the future of the planet.
King, with the farmland committee, joined other farmers in urging the county to require the oil industry to eliminate an idle oil well every time they drill a new well. But county staff said idle and orphaned wells were the state’s jurisdiction.
Many speakers argued that it’s time to transition away from the use of fossil fuels and hydraulic fracturing which, in their opinion, create unacceptable impacts to air quality, soil quality, water quality and the poor residents of Kern County who disproportionately live close to oil developments.
A long string of supporters, from the Kern County Farm Bureau to local nonprofits, labor unions and oil industry leaders, called the ordinance change critical to the local oil industry and by extension the economy.
Jay Tamsi of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said the oil industry fuels small business and the chamber supports the EIR and permit process. Tomeka Powell of the Kern County Black Chamber of Commerce added her support, too.
The oil industry fills government coffers with property and sales tax revenue, argued Michael Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers’ Association.
He said the new rules bring consistency and stability, the ingredient new investors need to put more money into the county.
Oviatt denied the permitting system would make it easier for companies to produce oil in Kern.
“I would really not say this is easier,” she said, referring to 88 new measures designed to ensure public health and safety. “But I absolutely would say it’s better.”