A local petroleum producer is trying to get two other Central Valley counties to replicate Kern's attempt at an over-the-counter oil and gas permitting system.
California Resources Corp.'s projects in Kings and Fresno counties propose to detail all possible environmental impacts from oilfield activity, then spell out what steps must be taken to cushion them or compensate for any unavoidable damage.
The idea is to replicate the regulatory certainty achieved, temporarily, by the system Kern pioneered in late 2015 and shut down last month, more than 1,000 permits later, after a major legal defeat. The county has vowed to continue revising the project until it passes legal muster.
From the oil industry's perspective, a primary benefit of the proposed permitting systems is that they provide environmental coverage for state regulators trying to evaluate oil project applications.
As a blanket approach intended to bypass environmental reviews of individual projects, the permitting blueprint will likely face opposition from some of the same environmental groups that have opposed Kern's effort.
Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought and prevailed in court against Kern's system, urged other counties to avoid "the oil industry’s attempts to skirt the law with the same type of scheme."
"Instead of making it easier to fast-track dangerous drilling projects," he wrote, "local governments should stop approving new projects and begin a just transition toward renewable energy."
Santa Clarita-based CRC, one of the state's biggest oil and gas producers, focuses much of its work in Kern but also owns and operates fields in Kings and Fresno counties. Those fields offer development opportunities once oil prices improve, the company said by email.
"The (environmental impact reviews) that are being prepared in those counties will facilitate continued local investment, jobs and environmentally responsible development of CRC’s assets," the company said.
The first of the two proposed outside Kern, the one in Fresno County, appears to have come to a standstill.
Marianne Mollring, senior planner at the Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning, said CRC applied in July 2018 to amend Fresno County codes to allow oil development similar to Kern's model.
The file was closed due to inactivity in January, she said by email, after the applicant failed to deliver materials requested by county staff. Oil projects are evaluated in the meantime on a case-by-case basis.
It appeared to Mollring that CRC's proposal was headed for complications.
"As proposed, the project would have faced significant environmental obstacles," she wrote.
The Kings project is still in early stages after it was brought up with county officials for the first time in May.
Chuck Kinney, deputy director of planning for Kings County, declined to offer an assessment of the proposal, saying he has not seen a first draft of the required environmental documents and doesn't know what environmental mitigation measures might be necessary to blunt the impact of oil production in the county.
"We want to look at the facts and see what all is involved in the process and what the potential impacts are and be able to formulate an idea of whether it’s good for the county or not," Kinney said. He added that it remains unclear how long the project might take to complete.
Kings County has experience with large-scale environmental reviews: In 2002 it adopted a dairy element covering the entire county.
Kinney said Kings expects to be offered legal indemnification by CRC to protect it in the event the county gets sued by environmental and other groups, as happened in Kern.
Kern officials said from the beginning they expected to face opposition — and they have — for their industry-funded efforts to create a strictly ministerial permitting system.
The primary objections have been from environmentalists who say the county's review violated the California Environmental Quality Act by downplaying oil projects' local impacts.
On a general level, they say counties trying to do a single, broad environmental review are wasting their time. They argue oil projects should be judged on their individual merits and that recent court decisions bear that out.
“It would be senseless for Kings County or Fresno County to try to recreate Kern County’s experiment when a California court just soundly rejected Kern County’s rubber-stamping system for failing to protect the county’s air quality, farmland and the water supply for families and farmers," Caroline Farrell, executive director at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said in an emailed statement.
"Kern County’s system silenced community voices in favor of big oil companies," she continued. "We hope Kings County and Fresno County take heed and do right by local residents.”
Farmers also have objected to aspects of Kern's now-defunct permitting system. They say the county gave too much sway to oil producers in "split-estate" situations where growers own surface rights but oil companies possess the underlying mineral rights.
An oil producer sued over the system, too, arguing the county gave farmers too much leverage in resolving split-estate conflicts.