In a major legal defeat for Kern's oil industry, an appeals court on Tuesday struck down the county's landmark zoning ordinance that in 2015 turned local oil permitting into a streamlined process all but immune from environmental challenges.
California's Fifth District Court of Appeals, ruling on a long-running lawsuit brought by local almond farmers and environmental groups, faulted the county's analysis of the ordinance. It called the review a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act and said the county failed to provide adequate protection from the ordinance's impacts.
After determining actions by Kern officials were prejudicial, the court set aside the ordinance and ordered the county to rescind it in 30 days. That means that, unless the California Supreme Court intervenes, in about a month the county may have to revert to an earlier system in which certain oil project applications could require some level of new environmental review.
Shafter almond grower Keith Gardiner, a manager at plaintiff King and Gardiner Farms LLC, called the ruling a victory for residents, farmers and working people of Kern County.
"County officials have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of the entire community, not just the economic interests of the oil industry," Gardiner said in a news release.
The ordinance had put in place a system for resolving so-called "split estate" disputes in which farmers that own surface property came into conflict with oil companies that own the underlying mineral rights. But some farmers — and at least one oil producer — have said the result was inequitable.
While that was one of the ordinance's more controversial aspects, the system it created — with the strong support of the petroleum industry — also resulted in oil companies paying large sums toward air quality improvement measures in the Central Valley. Those payments, based on approval of more than 1,000 oil permits since the measure's passage in November 2015, had not previously been required.
The ruling was also a big victory for a coalition of environmental groups whose legal challenge was joined with that of King and Gardiner.
Arizona-based environmental activist group Center for Biological Diversity called the ruling a "monumental victory" for advocacy groups and farmers.
"The court ruled that Kern County violated the law when it fast-tracked more oil and gas development and hid the immense harm caused by drilling," CBD attorney Hollin Kretzmann wrote in a news release.
The Western States Petroleum Association trade group said it was reviewing the court ruling.
Kern Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said by email the county, too, was reviewing the ruling and would have something to say about it Wednesday.
The ordinance revolved around a multimillion-dollar environmental review funded by the state's oil and gas industry. County officials said at the time they fully expected the review to come under legal attack but that eventually they expected it would be upheld and provide a clear path to local oil and gas permits.
At the time, state oil regulators voiced support for the environmental review and said it would help in their own consideration of drilling permits.
On Tuesday afternoon, the agency most directly involved with regulating oil production in the state, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, said it had not seen the ruling and could not comment.
Tuesday's appellate-court ruling overturns a Kern County Superior Court decision in 2018 that generally favored the county.
The appeals court found multiple CEQA violations by the county. One involved failing to disclose the ordinance's likely noise impacts on humans. Others dealt with neglecting to provide an adequate cushion for the permitting system's impacts on water and air quality.
Another violation identified by the court was that the county failed to consider King and Gardiner's proposal that oil and gas infrastructure on farmland be consolidated into clusters.
An attorney for the almond growers, Rachel Hooper, said that proposal and other measures will have to be taken into account by the county if Kern decides to revisit the ordinance.
Hooper said the county won't easily be able to patch up its flawed environmental review and re-approve the zoning ordinance its approval led to. She said it would have to add whole new measures to lessen the ordinance's environmental impacts.
She expressed doubt the state Supreme Court will agree to review the case, saying that judicial body agrees to do that with only a small number of cases per year.
"That would be very long odds” for the county, Hooper said.