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County supervisors reinstate contentious oil permitting system

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In this Californian file photo, an oil pumping unit and storage tank near Shane Court in Arvin is surrounded by residential apartments, single-family homes and commercial businesses.

Kern's Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 Monday to approve a controversial oil permitting system that drew public comments lasting more than eight hours, with many of the statements focused on the effects petroleum production has on the county's minority communities.

The vote reinstitutes an over-the-counter permitting process that, until it was struck down in court in February 2020, provided local oil companies with regulatory certainty in exchange for substantial new fees.

After listening to several hundred comments from across the state, most of them opposed to the proposal, board members Mike Maggard and Zack Scrivner emphasized California continues to need oil as it transitions to cleaner energy.

"Why on earth would we import 60, 70 percent of California's oil needs from other countries when we could produce so much here?" Scrivner asked before saying critics of the proposal were "really missing the fundamentals of this argument."

Supervisor Leticia Perez added she found it ironic so many callers from Southern California were telling the county to abandon oil production in favor of renewable energy, which she noted is produced in greater abundance in Kern than anywhere else in the country.

"To me it's more than ironic," she said. "It's offensive."

The board's approval puts back in place a system first adopted in 2015 requiring oil producers to take mitigation measures to cushion the environmental and health impacts of drilling. Without the system no permits are required to produce oil locally — but environmental reviews required at the state level have come slowly and are seen as vulnerable to legal challenges.

People on both sides of the issue expect it to be challenged in court once again, at which point scrutiny will likely focus on an extensive environmental review opponents said should be replaced by narrower reviews of individual oil projects.

Both sides of Monday's discussion focused on how oilfield activities impact residents in Hispanic communities such as those in Arvin and Wasco. But while supporters of the measure highlighted the industry's career opportunities, opponents pointed to health risks from air and water pollution.

More than one speaker warned of the local oil industry's "environmental segregation" and noted the communities living nearest to petroleum production in Kern tend to be poor and Hispanic. They referred to studies showing oil production increases incidence of respiratory and other ailments among people living near oilfields.

"I don't know how some of you can actually sleep enough with the new proposal. Haven't we done enough to … frontline communities?" asked Santa Cruz County resident Barbara Anderson, referring to minority populations living near oil production.

Oakland resident Susan Harmon, who like Anderson left a voicemail critical of the permitting proposal, called it "discriminatory and racist." She then asked the board not to expand drilling but "keep it in the ground."

Many of the same arguments were made last month at a public hearing hosted by the county Planning Commission, which ultimately voted 4-0 with 1 abstention to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the measure. But a noticeable difference between that hearing and Monday's was the greater number of industry workers calling in to the virtual hearing this time to register their support.

Some supporters of the proposal noted they had grown up or raised their families in Kern's minority communities, such as industry worker Danny Garcia. He said he personally had "made it from the bottom to the top" because of his job in Kern oilfields.

Martha Terrazas, an employee of Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC, left a voicemail for the board saying she and her husband had been able to provide a good life for their children because they work in local petroleum production.

"It helped mold me as a person and it's why I call this place home," she said.

Although race and class were common themes, more so than in past public hearings, speakers Monday included other arguments for and against local oil production.

Opponents cited climate change as another big reason not to support the permitting proposal. They also urged the board to find new ways to encourage greater development of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, industry representatives said making it harder to produce oil in California will not reduce demand for oil but will instead force the state to import more crude from overseas producers with lower environmental and labor standards that those required in the Golden State.

When Kern's permitting system was in place between 2015 and 2020, it led to more than $136 million in fees paid to various organizations, mostly a regional air-quality fund that opponents noted is not limited to local projects.

Because of the court defeat, the county system was nullified almost a year ago, prompting the county to revise portions of the plan found to be legally deficient.

Labor union representatives spoke in favor of the proposal Monday, as did the president-elect of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors and the executive director of the Kern County Taxpayers Association.

Speaking against it was Shafter-area farmer Keith Gardiner, who allied with environmental groups to challenge the county's permitting system.

Though Gardiner emphasized he collects oil royalties and is not against the industry, he asserted the county hasn't done enough to protect the interests of surface property owners from those of mineral-rights owners in cases where their claims come into conflict.

"The county is stating that oil tax revenues are far more important than the loss of our farmland," he said. "Don't place oil over ag."