The battle between Kern’s oil industry and environmental groups across the state will culminate on Monday with a public hearing hosted by the county watchdog on whether to reinstate a drilling license system for sale free.
County staff recommended that council re-enact a licensing order that, between December 2015 and its court-ordered revocation last March, imposed substantial new costs on local oil production in exchange for greater regulatory certainty.
Monday’s virtual hearing is a mere formality in some ways, in that the firmly pro-oil council voted unanimously to support the measure in the vote more than five years ago, and staff said that the matter would likely be decided in court once more.
But passionate supporters on both sides of the debate have defined the hearing as a pivotal event that depending on who you talk to will secure local jobs and the county’s tax base or worsen climate change and harm minority communities living there. near local oil fields.
In this sense, the hearing sums up one of the main challenges facing the entire country as it tries to balance environmental responsibility with the need for reliable energy and a healthy economy.
At a Planning Commission meeting last month, callers from across the state flooded the county’s voicemail system with pleas to reject a system they said would increase greenhouse gas emissions while polluting local air and water. The committee ended up voting 4-0, with one abstention, to recommend that the board of supervisors approve the measure.
Supporters of the industry have said they will do more this time around to argue that local oil production creates good jobs, ensures energy self-sufficiency and funds county services.
In an online press conference Thursday, Taft Mayor Dave Noerr said the county’s rejection of the proposed permit system would be a critical blow to the county’s tax base. He said oil money made up 80% of Kern’s top 10 taxpayer contributions in the current fiscal year.
Additionally, more than 60% of California’s oil came from overseas last year, and the reduction in domestic production will only increase those numbers.
“Californians deserve the economic benefits of California oil,” Noerr said. “The people of Kern County deserve it.”
But environmental and environmental justice groups fighting the proposal say oilfield activity almost harms communities while exacerbating climate change.
“County officials like to hide behind the talk about jobs and the economy when they should look for examples outside of Kern County and realize that we don’t have to depend on an industry that is naturally dying, ”Juan Flores, a community organizer with the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment, said during the Planning Commission hearing last month.
The proposal at issue is essentially a zoning change that requires oil producers who apply for a drilling permit to take various measures to cushion their environmental impact, including payments to a regional air quality fund. Local oil producers contributed nearly $ 115 million to the fund when the permitting system was working.
However, at the heart of the amendment’s legal status is an extensive environmental review covering 3,700 square miles, essentially the entire valley part of the unincorporated County of Kern. The county’s approach, supported financially by industry groups, has been to identify and address the potential impacts that oil production may have locally – a strategy according to environmentalists does not reflect local conditions.
After an appeals court found problems with the environmental review in February last year, the county was forced to shut down the permit system on March 25. Since then, local oil producers have been required to take relatively few steps to mitigate their environmental impacts.
This left state officials responsible for reviewing applications for new drilling, and its permit system has been criticized by environmentalists as being legally insufficient. Meanwhile, oil producers were allowed to drill without having to take the mitigation measures required by the county.
Sign of the importance that the industry considers the County’s proposal, Chevron Corp. chose last year to postpone six hydraulic fracturing jobs in the Lost Hills area rather than have the state conduct an EA that the company said it would prefer to be done as part of the General Review of Kern.
County staff have made changes to their environmental review and proposed a permitting process that they believe will correct the shortcomings identified by the court. They include removing the requirement that oil suppliers fund conservation easements on agricultural land as a mitigation measure, and clarifying a process that promotes fruitful negotiations between farmers and oil producers in cases where both have the legal right to operate on the same property.
If approved, the proposal would cap new wells at 2,697 per year for the 15-year life of the county’s licensing system, a 26% reduction from the county’s previous version.
County staff’s recommendation that the supervisory board approve the new permit system ended with a statement that the proposed changes to Kern’s zoning ordinance “reflect the balance of government regulation with the rights of private ownership and the needs of the market and our industries as well as California’s energy portfolio over the next 15 years. “