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Anti-oil groups file lawsuit as anticipated over Kern's revised permitting system


An oil pump station works in a field off Merced Road in this file photo.

A coalition of environmental activist groups on Thursday announced a lawsuit challenging the county Board of Supervisors' unanimous vote this week streamlining local drilling permits.

The suit filed Wednesday in Kern County Superior Court says the county failed to fix problems identified in a February 2020 appellate-court ruling that struck down a version of the permitting system that had been in place since 2015.

County staff has said it anticipated the permitting system would be challenged at every step and that eventually it expects the industry-funded effort will yield a process that can withstand legal scrutiny.

Plaintiffs said in a news release the revised zoning ordinance approved by a 5-0 board vote Monday doesn't require adequate environmental review of oil projects in unincorporated Kern or force petroleum producers to take steps that would protect the environment and minority communities living near local oilfields.

“Kern communities are bringing this lawsuit in order to protect their families because the county has failed to do so," said Chelsea Tu, senior attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which represents plaintiffs the Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter and Comité Progreso de Lamont.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club were also listed as plaintiffs. Defendants named are the Board of Supervisors, the county and its Planning and Natural Resources Department.

Lorelei Oviatt, the primary architect of the permitting system, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the county has confidence in its project.

A local group supportive of the permitting system accused anti-oil groups of trying to shut down one of the county's most important industries.

"It certainly is unfortunate, but not surprising that anti-oil activists have resorted to additional lawsuits," Tracy Leach, director of industry-funded Kern Citizens for Energy, said in a news release.

"What they still fail to answer is since all of us — including the activists and the other 40 million Californians — still need oil and natural gas and its many products, where do they suggest we get those products?" she wrote.

The county permitting system offers regulatory certainty in exchange for new fees. It relies on a single, all-encompassing assessment of oil impacts, not individual reviews. It also requires companies to take steps to mitigate the effects of their work and pay into a fund that between 2015 and 2020 raised some $136 million for air-quality and other projects.

Opponents of the system say it overlooks local conditions and doesn't do enough to cushion the industry's environmental footprint.

“Kern County deserves better than a rubberstamped fossil fuel nightmare for years to come,” Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in Thursday's lawsuit announcement.

The suit asks the court to set aside the board's approval of the ordinance, its certification of the underlying environmental review and supervisors' adoption of a statement of overriding considerations.

It says mistakes identified in last year's appellate ruling largely remain in the revised review. The county didn't adequately discuss the impact of oil-related emissions, it says, and it neglected to properly reconsider and protect against water-supply impacts.

Plus, it says the county didn't fully address noise impacts or the ordinance's likely harm to the Temblor legless lizard, and it didn't do enough to involve Spanish-speaking people it says will be disproportionately affected by the permitting system.