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Kern County supervisors to sue Gov. Newsom over 'unilateral' move to ban fracking in California

20210811-bc-supes

The Kern County Board of Supervisors in closed session approved the action to sue the state of California over Gov. Gavin Newsom's order phasing out new fracking in the state by 2024. The action was approved by a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Leticia Perez voting no.

By SAM MORGEN

The Kern County Board of Supervisors has authorized a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom over the state’s recent denial of hydraulic fracturing permits.

A 4-1 vote in closed session on Tuesday morning gives the green light to county attorneys to draft the lawsuit against Newsom, who supervisors say has violated the state constitution in his attempt to institute an administrative ban on fracking.

“The decisions (Newsom) has made to unilaterally come after the oil and gas industry in violation of standing rules and standing law, that’s been established by the state Legislature, has been a gross overreach of his power,” Board Chairman Phillip Peters said after supervisors announced their intent to sue the state on Tuesday. “He’s supposed to be executing the laws, not decreeing them. So we’re going to try and push back on that.”

In early July the state oil and gas supervisor, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, head of the California Geologic Energy Management division, rejected 21 fracking permit applications filed by Bakersfield-based Aera Energy LLC. For what appeared to be the first time ever, the applications were denied not for technical reasons but based on Ntuk’s discretionary authority.

Then, on Monday, Ntuk denied 14 more permit applications, also filed by Aera for fracking wells in western Kern County. Again he cited his discretionary authority, not technical standards, to protect health, safety and the environment. The denial letters cited risks relating to greenhouse gases, a clear reference to concerns about climate change.

Prior to the denials, Newsom had called on the state Legislature to pass a bill that would ban new fracking permits by 2024. But legislators drafted a bill that would ban not only fracking, but other common oilfield techniques. It died in committee after labor unions and other groups voiced disapproval.

Newsom then moved to bypass the Legislature by imposing an administrative fracking ban through the state regulatory process. The ban has yet to be officially approved by CalGEM, but the agency has nevertheless moved forward with denying fracking permits at its own discretion.

“Gov. Newsom is operating like a dictator,” Supervisor Zack Scrivner said. “In this country you have the separation of powers — executive, legislative, judicial — the legislative branch in the state of California is the one who controls the policy in regards to these permits. But Newsom, even though the Legislature denied his request to pass legislation to ban fracking, Newsom went around the Legislature and went straight to his regulatory agencies to do so.”

He went on to say the governor was “way outside of his lane,” and was hurting families in Kern County by diminishing an industry that provides millions of dollars in tax revenue to the local government.

Fracking is a process that injects water, sand and chemicals underground to release petroleum deposits. The oil industry says it can conduct the practice safely, but it has come under fire by environmentalists, who claim it damages air and water resources.

The lawsuit was announced a day after a major United Nations scientific report warned world governments must act quickly to cut greenhouses gases to avoid climate catastrophes.

“Kern County’s tone-deaf announcement of a baseless lawsuit on behalf of fossil fuel executives comes just a day after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary driver of the unprecedented climate emergency,” Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment,wrote in an email to The Californian. “Kern County may pay lip service to jobs but, in fact, has done nothing to protect fossil fuel workers from unstable boom and bust cycles or develop more sustainable job sectors for the region.”

Supervisor Leticia Perez was the only member of the board to vote against authorizing the lawsuit. She did not address her decision during the board meeting nor answer questions about it after the meeting was adjourned.

However, the other four supervisors offered a united front following the meeting. They stood together to speak to reporters about their decision.

“The constitution does not give the governor the authority to govern by fiat. He is governing by fiat,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard, referencing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Newsom’s ban on indoor church services during the coronavirus pandemic. “We are hoping that the state court will do the same thing and make sure the governor goes back into his lane.”

Specific details on the lawsuit were not available on Tuesday. The county has yet to draft a legal complaint, but will soon do so.

Business Editor John Cox contributed to this report.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.