A renewed legal challenge is targeting Kern County's 2015 regulatory attempt to resolve certain property disputes between local oil producers and farmers.
Oilman Ken Hunter has requested a new trial for his claim that a county zoning ordinance gives surface property owners an unconstitutional advantage over those with underlying mineral rights.
A hearing on his request for a new trial has been scheduled for Friday morning. Hunter said he will appeal the ruling if he cannot get a new trial.
The regulations at issue are part of a landmark effort to accomplish two goals: Shield local oil activity from environmental challenges, and smooth relations on "split-estate" properties, where mineral rights belong to one party but surface rights belong to another.
Hunter's actions are unrelated to two other lawsuits, one by environmentalists and another by farmers, challenging the county's actions. Observers expect those two parties to appeal.
Hunter, head of Vaquero Energy, Inc. and Hunter Edison Oil Development Limited Partnership, alleges Kern County Superior Court Judge Eric Bradshaw's ruling erroneously interferes with his private negotiations with farmers.
Normally, Hunter said, he has no problem working with farmers who own the land above his oilfields. When he needs access to the surface property, he negotiates, writes a check for any lost farm production, then arranges to do whatever surface work his oil interest requires.
But he said the county disrupted the balance of power in such discussions when it forced oil companies to get surface property owners' approval for any oil-related construction. If after four months the surface owner — usually a farmer — still doesn't approve, then the oil company must pay for a county inspector to monitor the site day and night for the duration of the work period.
County planning officials have said their intention was to create a financial incentive for oil companies to work with farmers rather than simply assert their right to the property without consideration for surface rights owners.
Farmers have lined up on both sides of the issue. Some say they have long been able to work harmoniously with oil producers, while others support the county's protections.
Local almond farmer Holly King, who has been closely involved with the county's split-estate considerations, told The Californian in 2015 that the issue is not about money but the environment.
"We have kept (the dispute) to land-use issues from the beginning," King said.
California law has held that mineral rights owners in split estates must be allowed reasonable access to the property. But surface property owners say they are not always fairly compensated for they disruption oil companies cause.
Hunter says small, independent oil companies are harmed by the 120-day period more than larger producers, who generally pump oil in areas without much farming activity. He calls the waiting period a limit on his constitutional right to due process, and that the inspector requirement amounts to a monetary sanction.
County officials could not be reached for comment Monday. But in legal filings, county lawyers contend surface owners in split-estate properties did not get the veto power they requested. They argue that "a reduction in profit due to regulatory delay" does not support the accusation they are taking away oil companies' rights.
Hunter said he has not yet been affected by the county ordinance adopted unanimously by the county Board of Supervisors on Nov. 9, 2015. That's because he has been working with permits issued prior to the ordinance, he said.
But he knows other companies that have been affected, and he is opposed to the county's action on principle.
"Some surface owners just don't like oil companies, and we know that. They won't sign anything," he said.
His preference is for a system similar to one that exists in Colorado, in which an appointed mediator resolves conflicts over split estates.
Hunter said he is arguing against government interference on a broad level.
"If you think it's lawful that the county can put its thumb on the scale to influence two private parties with equal right to the surface … it can be done for any number of private negotiations," he said. "Where does it stop?