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County's fracking lawsuit also targets other oilfield regulatory actions

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 lawsuit Kern County filed this week against Gov. Gavin Newsom is aimed at not only ending his de-facto ban on fracking but also at easing state regulatory constraints on at least two other oilfield techniques common locally.

As part of its larger argument that the Newsom administration has overstepped its constitutional authority, Monday's petition for a writ of mandate in Kern County Superior Court asserts Newsom had no right in 2019 to place a moratorium on high-pressure cyclic steaming or require extensive "area of review" analyses prior to approval of underground injections.

All three oilfield processes have elicited outrage among environmental and climate-change activists trying to shut down oil and gas production across the state — just as the same trio has been upheld by the industry as being well-regulated and safe.

The lawsuit approved last month by the Board of Supervisors broadly condemns Newsom's overall handling of oil and gas regulation since he took office in 2019. It says that under his leadership California's primary oil regulatory agency has violated its mandate under the state Public Resources Code to promote oil production, and that it has rejected the agency's own findings in recent years regarding the safety and efficacy of fracking and high-pressure cyclic steaming.

Pointing to a series of findings from an extensive environmental review certified in 2015 by the agency now known as California's Geologic Energy Management Division, the 33-page suit says cutting in-state oil production will only increase the Golden State's dependence on oil imports while also leading to more global greenhouse-gas emissions and worsening air quality in poor neighborhoods near ports and transportation corridors.

It further states that Newsom's de-facto ban — his top CalGEM appointee, State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk, has given only vague reasons for withholding fracking permits since February — unfairly denies Kern residents good-paying jobs and county property tax revenues totaling more than $80 million in fiscal 2018-19 alone.

The governor's office declined to comment on the lawsuit. While CalGEM declined to comment as well, it offered a statement defending its recent permit denials.

"The state is committed to protecting public health, safety and environmental quality and stands by the State Oil and Gas Supervisor’s discretion under statute to approve or deny fracking permits," the agency said by email.

Still unclear was whether, or to what degree, California's oil industry is contributing to the lawsuit.

The county declined again Tuesday, as it did Monday, to say how much it has spent on the lawsuit or whether the oil industry had any role, financial or otherwise. It referred the questions to a lawyer at the firm hired to bring the suit, David A. Robinson at Holland & Knight, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The lawsuit underscores local hostilities that have arisen since Newsom began taking a series of actions intended to fight climate change by reducing demand for petroleum while also cutting supply, the majority of which originates in Kern.

California went through a prolonged process of regulating fracking between 2013 and 2015. What emerged were the state's first regulations specific to process also known as hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand and sometimes toxic chemicals are blasted underground to open access to oil reservoirs.

Environmental advocates continued to push for a ban on the practice, which Newsom proposed be done legislatively last fall. But the bill that emerged early this year died in committee on its first vote.

News accounts cited in this week's lawsuit report the governor has conceded he had no authority to unilaterally impose a ban on fracking. But after the fracking bill failed, he issued an executive order launching a rule-making process with the same intent. The county's lawsuit says that process has stalled, even as it asserts CalGEM has denied every fracking permit it has received since February.

Newsom placed the moratorium on high-pressure cyclic steaming after a Chevron Corp. operation near McKittrick resulted in a large, uncontrolled release of oil, steam and associated fluids in the Cymric Oil Field. While such problems are not new, the industry maintains they pose minimal risks to the environment.

Concerns relating to underground injection work also predate Newsom's arrival in Sacramento, as do CalGEM's insistence on "area of review" analyses. But the lawsuit says that under his administration, CalGEM has adopted a "deny-by-never-ending-delay strategy" that has effectively stopped new oilfield permits for such work even in existing oil fields.

It was unclear whether the injection work referred to in the lawsuit relates to wastewater disposal or steam and water floods, which deal with production.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the governor's office that it would not comment on the lawsuit.