In a first step aimed at reinstating a local oil-and-gas permitting system effectively struck down earlier this year in appeals court, Kern County this week began soliciting input on how to proceed with a comprehensive environmental review of drilling and other oil field activity around the county.
Kern's Planning and Natural Resources Department released a notice of preparation for the oil and gas supplemental recirculated environmental impact review it expects to complete on the way to restoring an ordinance that had provided more than $88 million toward air quality programs and regulatory certainty for local oil producers.
Environmental groups have vowed to oppose the industry-funded effort, as they did successfully in court after the previous review was approved by the Board of Supervisors in late 2015. They contend oil field projects' environmental footprint should be judged individually instead of the broad review the county is attempting.
Their lawsuit ultimately halted the permitting system in March. It had been joined with another suit filed by a local almond grower objecting to the way the ordinance attempts to resolve conflicts between farmers who own the surface and oil companies with rights to the underlying mineral resources.
The previous effort was strongly supported by officials at the California Department of Conservation, which had welcomed the regulatory clearance the project offered. At the time the project was being put together, the state was being accused of failing to review oil projects' environmental impacts.
The department said by email Friday that it and its oil and gas arm, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, "fully support local land-use decisions that are backed by appropriate environmental review."
It noted that, on oil permit application "job cards" issued since March 26, it is the lead agency responsible for considering environmental impacts of oil projects in Kern. That responsibility had previously fallen to the county after Kern adopted its earlier environmental review and permitting system in 2015.
"DOC will continue with its CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review process — as both Lead Agency and Responsible Agency, as warranted — as Kern County works to follow the court’s direction for correcting the parts of its EIR (environmental impact review) that the court did not approve," the department wrote.
Kern's top planner, Lorelei Oviatt, the architect of the now-nullified permitting system, noted by email Friday that the defeat of the county's permitting system has wiped away all air and water quality protections the county's ordinance had put in place.
She defended that system as the most comprehensive and restrictive in the state.
"Outside interests that call for the State to regulate us and overrule local government or that call for all drilling to stop have no regard for our economy or the services provided for our libraries, elderly population, school children, vulnerable populations like homeless veterans and the workforce that provides this critical fuel and a product found in the majority of things people use every day," she wrote.
"Kern County is a leader in all types of energy, including renewable energy," she continued, "and the 'Just Transition' movement promoted by outside interests have unrealistic understandings on the wages and government revenue from renewable energy projects compared to the Oil and Gas industry."
Oviatt told The Californian earlier that the county's upcoming review will focus on noise impacts, alternatives to the conservation easements that had been used as mitigation measures and the need to clean up "produced water" that comes up from the ground along with oil.
The county also will need to recirculate scientific studies showing oil production's health impacts on nearby communities, she said.
A "virtual" scoping meeting intended to gather comments on what all the county's review should take into account has been scheduled for 1:30 p.m. May 13. Oviatt said details on how to attend will be posted on the county planning department's website, kernplanning.com, three days before the meeting.
The notice of preparation can be found online at kernplanning.com/environmental-doc/oil-and-gas-sreir.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect how much money Kern's oil-and-gas permitting system raised for air quality programs.