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Oil hearing draws comments from both sides of permitting debate

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This file photo shows a pumping unit and oil rigs south of Kimberlina Road and west of Shafter Avenue.

Speakers at an online public hearing Thursday night staked out opposing positions on Kern County’s proposal to reestablish an over-the-counter system of oil permitting.

But nearly four hours into the proceeding, at close to 11 p.m., the meeting was adjourned until 9 a.m. Friday.

By that point the large majority of comments received were in opposition to the permitting plan. Speakers and voice mails received by the county large blamed local oil production for negative health and climate impacts and urged the county to abandon oil production in favor of clean energy.

“No more oil wells!” said the president of Committee for a Better Shafter, Anabel Marquez, who accused local oil production of poisoning her children’s air.

A number of industry supporters did speak up about the economic opportunity oil provides. Some cast doubt on renewable energy's capacity for powering the entire state while others noted the oil industry has generously supported local academic and philanthropic programs.

“Thousands of Latinos have been able to provide for their families” because of jobs in the oil industry, said Jay Tamsi, president and CEO of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The county proposal would reestablish an over-the-counter system of oil permits that, until an earlier version was rejected in court almost one year ago, required payment of fees and measures to cushion the environmental impacts of petroleum production in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Thursday’s proceedings were a warmup for a final vote next month, when the county Board of Supervisors is expected to take up the Planning Commission’s recommendations.

But ultimately the system’s fate may be decided in court. The county anticipated when it launched the effort in 2012 it would be challenged at every step; for that reason the oil industry promised to cover Kern County government’s legal costs. County staff have pledged to revise the environmental review and zoning ordinance as many times as necessary until it passes legal muster.

Environmental clearance is at the heart of the matter. The county doesn’t require an oil permit because property owners are allowed to produce oil by right. But some state environmental reviews required for local projects have been found legally deficient.

The industry expects better success with the county’s massive review covering every different type of oil above-ground operation across 2.3 million acres on Kern’s valley floor. Underground aspects of oilfield work would continue to be reviewed by the state.

Environmental groups contend such a broad review cannot take into account all local conditions and that each individual drilling project should be examined on its own merit.

More broadly, opponents of the measure are against oil production’s potential impacts on air and water quality. Many want an economically fair transition to energy free of greenhouse gases tied to climate change.

Activists say proximity to oil operations is to blame for high rates of cancer, asthma, and other chronic illnesses in local minority communities. They presented a petition this week with more than 7,000 signatures calling on the Board of Supervisors and Gov. Gavin Newsom to end the county’s permitting push.

A local farming group has also opposed the county’s efforts and was part of the legal challenge that led to the system’s court loss Feb. 25 and its suspension a month later. The group says the county’s system gives oil producers an unfair upper hand in disputes between surface owners and oil companies that possess the underlying mineral rights.

The oil industry notes petroleum production accounts for many thousands of local jobs and some $80 million per year in property tax payments.

Industry groups say their members abide by some of the strictest drilling regulations on the planet and that if not for local production California’s continuing thirst for oil would have to come from overseas, sending jobs and sales to producers overseas with relatively lax standards.

After three years of work by county staff, the county Board of Supervisors in 2015 approved an earlier version of the permitting system. It was immediately challenged in court but not ultimately rejected in court until February 2020.

The permitting system’s primary architect, county Community Development Director Lorelei Oviatt, told the commission about a number of revisions to the prior system that she said address the court’s ruling a year ago.

The changes include extending a buffer between oilfield operations and “sensitive receptors” like homes to 300 feet from 210 in the earlier version. Also, noise mitigations were toughened, and oil producers wanting to drill on farmland with abandoned petroleum equipment would first have to remove it.

Planning Commissioner Joe B. Ashley, director of environmental and regulatory affairs at local oil producer California Resources Corp., recused himself from Thursday’s proceeding.