Kern's Planning Commission voted 4-0 Friday, with one abstention, to recommend the county Board of Supervisors reestablish a streamlined oil-and-gas permitting system opposed by environmentalists around the state.
The proceeding had to be carried over to Friday morning after a nearly four-hour meeting Thursday night wasn't long enough to hear a flood of comments from people expressing concerns about oil production's health and environmental impacts, as well as a desire to transition away from petroleum to cleaner forms of energy.
In supporting a return to an over-the-counter permitting system of permits rejected in court almost one year ago, commissioners noted the county is a leader in renewable energy but that such jobs don't come near to replacing the oil industry's employment and tax-revenue benefits.
Commissioner Gregory McGiffney disputed commenters' assertions the oil industry is dying and therefore not worth accommodating with a ministerial permitting system that would provide regulatory certainty in exchange for new fees and mitigation measures protecting the environment and people living near oilfields.
He added that the county's proposal actually increases oilfield regulation and that it won't lead to new drilling unless consumers demand more petroleum-based fuel.
"There won't be more wells drilled if there's not more demand for oil," McGiffney said.
Commissioner Ron Sprague agreed with opponents of the proposal who said things must change — "and things are changing." But he said people still depend on internal-combustion cars, and in Kern County people have coexisted alongside oil production "for many, many years."
The proposal, consisting of a new and extensive environmental review of oilfield operations over 2.3 million miles of unincorporated Kern County plus a new zoning amendment, is expected to be sent to the county Board of Supervisors for consideration next month.
In that sense, the two-session Planning Commission meeting was a mere warmup for the hearing county supervisors will host. But even that is considered less pivotal to the proposal's fate than what may happen in court.
Environmental groups have fought the county system vigorously, and ultimately prevailed in appellate court in February 2020. At the same time, the county has pushed forward with a legal defense funded by the state's oil industry.
The commission's hearing elicited a robust, organized response from environmental and environmental-justice groups in and outside Kern County. Their comments greatly outnumbered statements of support for the industry and the county's proposed permitting system.
The voicemails played late Thursday and continuing Friday morning mostly accused the county of sacrificing the health of "frontline" minority communities living near Kern oilfields. The calls, many of which also warned of accelerating climate change, came from people living in Kern as well as many who identified themselves as residing outside the area.
Local Sierra Club member Sharon Briel said she was concerned about local oil production's negative impacts on air quality.
"It's an equal-opportunity polluter," she said. "We need more green jobs, less fossil fuel."
There were also strong endorsements of local petroleum production, even as those comments were relatively few by comparison.
Stan Eschner, CEO of Bakersfield-based Trio Petroleum LLC, left the commission a voicemail saying local oilfields were generally established before nearby communities sprang up.
"Oilfields have nothing to do with wealth or poverty or what's going on above ground," he said.
The county permitting system's primary architect, top planner Lorelei Oviatt, said after the public hearing concluded Friday that commenters had expressed serious concerns but that all of them had been referenced in the county's environmental review.
"We have not stepped over the serious concerns," she said. "Our issue is that the oil and gas industry has a legal right to extract their minerals and they are part of an ongoing industry."
She acknowledged the planet's climate is changing, "however, an immediate change is not possible," she said.
Planning Commissioner Joe B. Ashley, director of environmental and regulatory affairs at local oil producer California Resources Corp., did not participate in the hearing and recused himself from Friday's vote.
Bakersfield public-relations professional Tracy Leach, who as director of Kern Citizens for Energy has helped organize community support for the county's permitting efforts, said by email she was thrilled by Friday's vote.
She wrote she looks forward to the Board of Supervisors "voting to approve this recommendation so that we can continue providing that much-needed oil and natural gas, protecting our county’s 25,000 jobs and producing energy under the highest environmental health and safety standards in the world.”
Leach added that when the matter comes before the board, "we will be sure that our elected representatives hear from the overwhelming number of local residents" supporting workers in the industry.