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'Overwhelming' opposition to oil activity may present challenge to local industry

midway-sunset oil field

The Midway-Sunset oil field near Taft is one of the state’s most productive.

In a growing political challenge to Kern’s biggest industry, public comments on an upcoming environmental study show California oil production continues to face broad public skepticism outside the county.

The specific regulatory matter at hand — hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) on federal land — is not expected to have much impact locally. But the size of the opposition, combined with a demonstration planned for Santa Maria Thursday against a Bakersfield oil producer’s permit application, could foretell trouble as the industry faces regulatory challenges and a new administration in Sacramento.

The vast majority of public comments, often in form letters distributed by environmental groups, raised questions about groundwater, air quality and other impacts of the well completion technique. Fracking is common in Kern; it blasts water, sand and chemicals underground to free up petroleum.

For the purposes of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management study, most of those were set aside: Only 2.5 percent of all comments were judged to be unique and substantive. Even so, only a fifth of 1 percent were supportive of fracking, including statements by trade groups and oil companies.

“The BLM report proves what we already know – that residents and businesses throughout the central coast are overwhelmingly opposed to drilling and fracking our region’s iconic landscapes,” executive director Jeff Kuyper of the nonprofit Los Padres ForestWatch, wrote in a news release Monday.

NO EVIDENCE OF GROUNDWATER POLLUTION

Studies have blamed fracking for contaminating groundwater in other states. No instances of groundwater pollution have been identified in California, where the geography is unique and regulatory standards are among the highest in the world. Seismic disturbances sometimes associated with petroleum production, including rare instances in the Golden State, are thought to result not from fracking but oilfield injections of the salty wastewater that comes up from the ground with oil.

The BLM is studying fracking after being sued in 2014 by environmentalist activist groups contending the agency leased land for use in petroleum production without considering how the oil well stimulation technique impacts water and air quality. A draft environmental report covering 1.2 million acres of federal land in California is expected to be released for public comment next month. A summary of the public comments can be found here.

Because it covers only BLM land, the study would not impact most local oil production. Less than half of 1 percent of California oil production takes place on federal property.

UPHILL PUSH

But with a variety of ongoing regulatory initiatives bringing extra scrutiny to oilfield injections in California, the comments suggest the industry could face a renewed regulatory push at the state level.

On another front, a variety of environmental groups has organized a rally at 5 p.m. Thursday at a Santa Barbara County Planning & Development agency hearing to oppose a permit application by Aera Energy LLC. The Bakersfield company seeks approval for 248 new oil wells in Cat Canyon 10 miles from Santa Maria.

The administration of new Gov. Gavin Newsom has not said much about the approach he intends to take with regard to oil regulation. Former Gov. Jerry Brown was seen as taking a moderate approach, which hurt his standing with environmentalists who otherwise praised his work cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Coastal politicians have pushed aggressively for new limits on oil production in recent years. Those rules affect Kern, the state’s oil heavyweight, more than anywhere else in the state. Nudged by environmental activist groups, coastal legislators have succeeded in introducing new regulations on fracking. But they have failed at repeated attempts to halt or greatly curtail oil production.

INDUSTRY EFFORTS

The industry has become better in recent years at speaking up at public gatherings and putting out messages about the employment and independent energy benefits of oil production. Those efforts have been focused mostly locally, whereas regulatory actions with the largest impact are usually taken at the state level.

Tracy Leach, organizer for Kern Citizens for Energy, an industry-funded organization that has drawn pro-oil crowds to permitting hearings, said environmental activists are pouring substantial resources into campaigns opposing local energy and local jobs.

“While well-funded activists write letters, Kern County men and women, are hard at work producing the oil and gas we all depend on, ensuring that the jobs, the tax revenues and the considerable health and safety benefits stay right here in California - produced under the strictest environmental and human rights standards on the planet,” she said by email.

The trade group Western States Petroleum Association said in a statement it is not surprising interest groups organized a letter campaign as part of the scientific and regulatory review process. It said it looks forward to engaging in the public process.

“We support stakeholders and interest groups providing their point of view as we present ours. We believe to chart a truly sustainable energy future that all stakeholders must have a seat at the table,” WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd stated.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for a free newsletter on local business.

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