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Board hearing will pit environmentalists against local oil industry

south belridge1 (copy)

This is a view of oil production in Kern County's South Belridge Oil Field, one of the most productive in California.

The battle between Kern's oil industry and environmental groups from across the state will culminate Monday with a public hearing hosted by the county Board of Supervisors on whether to reestablish an over-the-counter system of drilling permits.

County staff has recommended the board readopt a permitting ordinance that, between December 2015 and its court-ordered revocation last March, imposed substantial new costs on local oil production in exchange for greater regulatory certainty.

Monday's virtual hearing is a mere formality in some senses, in that the solidly pro-oil board voted unanimously to support the measure when it first came to a vote more than five years ago, and staff has said the matter is likely to be decided in court once again.

But impassioned supporters on both sides of the debate have defined the hearing as a pivotal event that, depending who you talk to, will either secure local jobs and the county's tax base or worsen climate change and harm minority communities living near local oilfields.

In that sense, the hearing encapsulates one of the central challenges facing the entire country as it tries to balance environmental responsibility with the need for reliable energy and a healthy economy.

At a Planning Commission meeting last month, callers from across the state flooded the county's voicemail system with pleas to reject a system they said would increase greenhouse gas emissions while polluting local air and water. The commission ended up voting 4-0, with one abstention, to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the measure.

Industry supporters have said they will do more this time to make the case that local oil production creates good jobs, provides energy self-sufficiency and bankrolls county services.

At an online news conference Thursday, Taft Mayor Dave Noerr said the county's rejection of the proposed permitting system would be a critical hit to the county's tax base. He said oil money comprised 80 percent of the contributions by Kern's top-10 property-tax payers in the current fiscal year.

Plus, more than 60 percent of California's oil came from overseas last year, and cutting domestic production will only increase that figures.

"Californians deserve the economic benefits of California's oil," Noerr said. "The people of Kern County deserve it."

But environmental and environmental-justice groups fighting the proposal say oilfield activity harms nearly communities while exacerbating climate change.

"County elected officials like to hide behind the discourse of jobs and the economy when they should be looking to examples outside of Kern County and realize that we do not have to depend on an industry that is naturally dying," Juan Flores, a community organizer with the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment, said at last month's Planning Commission hearing.

The proposal at issue is basically a zoning amendment that requires oil producers filing for a drilling permit to take various steps to cushion their environmental impact, including payments to a regional air-quality fund. Local oil producers contributed nearly $115 million to the fund when the permitting system was operating.

Central to the amendment's legal standing, however, is an extensive environmental review covering 3,700 square miles, essentially all of the valley portion of unincorporated Kern County. The county's approach, backed financially by industry groups, has been to identify and address potential impacts oil production can have locally — a strategy environmentalists say doesn't reflect local conditions.

After an appellate court found problems with the environmental review in February of last year, the county was forced to shut down the permitting system March 25. Since then local oil producers have been required to take relatively few steps to mitigate their environmental impacts.

That has left state officials in charge of screening applications for new drilling, and its permitting system has been attacked by environmentalists as legally insufficient. Meanwhile, oil producers have been allowed to drill without having to take mitigation measures that had been required by the county.

In a sign of how important the industry considers the county's proposal, Chevron Corp. opted last year to postpone six hydraulic fracturing jobs in the Lost Hills area rather than have the state perform an environmental assessment the company said it would prefer be done as part of Kern's blanket review.

County staff has made changes to its environmental review and proposed permitting process it says will address flaws identified by the court. They include the removal of a requirement that oil providers fund farmland conservation easements as a mitigation measure, and clarification of a process promoting successful negotiations between farmers and oil producers in cases where both have a legal right to operate on the same property.

If approved, the proposal would cap new wells at 2,697 per year for the 15-year life of the county permitting system, a 26 percent reduction from the county's previous version.

County staff's recommendation that the Board of Supervisors approve the new permitting system concluded with a statement that proposed changes to Kern's zoning ordinance "reflect the balancing of government regulation with private property rights and the needs of the market and our industries as well as the energy portfolio of California over the next 15 years."

Mondays meeting is scheduled at 9 a.m. and can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/c/officialkerncounty.