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Anti-oil coalition presents 7,000 signatures ahead of county meeting on streamlined permitting

20190325-bc-oilactivity

A pump station on the Kern River Oil Field.

More than 7,000 people signed a petition submitted Wednesday asking Kern's Board of Supervisors and Gov. Gavin Newsom to halt the county's push to reinstate streamlined oil permitting.

Arriving one day before the county Planning Commission takes up the matter, the petition presented by a coalition of environmental and environmental-justice groups says minority communities are more likely to live near oilfields in Kern and as a result suffer from cancer, asthma and other chronic diseases.

Commissioners will host a public hearing and vote on whether to establish an over-the-counter oil permitting system and also recommend the Board of Supervisors certify a related environmental review of local oilfield activities' various impacts.

Set to start at 7 p.m., the online meeting is the latest step in a process that started in late 2012 when the local oil industry offered to fund a county attempt to achieve environmental clearance across virtually the entire valley portion of Kern County.

The petition called on county supervisors to abandon a project that estimates say could lead to approval of 67,000 new wells over 20 years. It said the board should "take steps to better protect the health and safety of local communities, and to diversify economic opportunities while transitioning the county to a clean energy economy."

It went on to say Newsom will never be a leader in environmental and climate justice until he does more to cut supply along with demand for oil. In line with supporters' assertions he has the authority to intervene, it calls on the governor to "protect frontline communities and to lead a just transition to a green energy future."

An initial version of the system approved in late 2015 offered regulatory certainty plus even state-level environmental coverage in exchange for substantial new drilling fees.

It was discontinued nearly a year ago after California's Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled in February the county had violated the California Environmental Quality Act, including by failing to disclose likely noise impacts and neglecting to cushion impacts on water and air quality. County staff have vowed to revise and reintroduce the system as many times as necessary until it passes legal muster.

Opponents of the county's permitting effort, who have promised to keep challenging the county in court, generally contend well-by-well environmental reviews are more appropriate than a regional assessment they say is bound to overlook site-specific impacts.

Also, some local farmers say the county's system wrongly gives oil companies the upper hand in negotiations pertaining to so-called "split estates," in which a grower controls the surface and an oil producer owns the underlying mineral rights.

The county has defended the process as generating substantial new revenue for a regional fund paying for air-quality improvements, and it notes that without the system oil producers don't even need a local permit.

Meanwhile, the county's oil industry strongly supports the county's proposal. It maintains local oil producers operate under the world's strictest regulations and that cutting domestic supply ahead of sharp drops in California's demand for oil only shifts jobs and sales revenue to foreign countries with lower environmental and other standards.

Members of the coalition behind the petition spoke online during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Anabel Marquez, president of Committee for A Better Shafter, said the county should not sacrifice local communities' health "in the name of the economy."

"We have to find a way that we can make our communities thrive without having to depend on the oil industry," she said.

Juan Flores, a community organizer with the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment, which has offices locally in the Bay Area, said during the event Newsom should take action against the efforts of "hard-headed elected officials" in Kern who are supporting an industry already dying on its own.

He declined to say how specifically the environmental review shot down in court still falls short of legal standards. But Flores said local communities "need leadership from the state" to avoid having the same battle every five years.

Anyone may tune in to Thursday evening's Planning Commission meeting by going online to https://www.youtube.com/user/KGOVTV.

Interested parties are invited to email their comments ahead of time to planningcommissioncomment@kerncounty.com. Alternatively, commenters may leave a voicemail comment by calling 661-862-5011, making sure to reference the commission's Agenda Item 1.