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Oil and gas production. (Photo: conservation.ca.gov/calgem)

Kern County Board of Supervisors Passes Revised Oil Well Drilling Plan

Revised ordinance to streamline environmental impact reports, create up to 2,700 new wells a year

By Evan Symon, March 10, 2021 7:04 pm

On Monday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to revise a county ordinance that streamlines environmental impact reports to approve up to 2, 700 new wells a year for the next 15 years.

The movement to to create a general environmental impact reports for new oil wells in the county had been ongoing since last year when a California appellate court that a drilling ordinance had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not thoroughly going over environmental consequences from new drilling sites.

“The ordinance was approved despite significant, adverse environmental impacts,” said the appellate court in it’s ruling last year. “The ordinance’s basic purpose is the acceleration of oil and gas development and the economic benefits that might be achieved by that development. It’s basic purpose is not the protection of the environment.”

New drilling permits were subsequently halted last year while a new plan was voted on. Due to environmental concerns, the number of new wells was reduced while new protective measures, such as more space between new wells and residential areas, as well as noise production while drilling, were introduced.

Despite the huge changes, environmental groups heavily fought the new plan, including the new ‘one-size-fits-all’ environmental impact reports. They argued that such reports would not be able to adequately cover most new wells. Many groups also pushed for no new wells being drilled anywhere close to homes, as well as pollution reduction due to the poor air quality near the wells. They also urged the passing of SB 467, which would halt fracking in California by 2027.

However oil companies, as well as business groups and oil workers themselves, argued that there was an economic need for oil production, especially since 1 in 7 jobs in Kern County are oil industry-related, with many more around that giving support services to the industry or benefitting from the industry supporting local businesses.

On Monday, Supervisors heard from both sides and noted many economic benefits, such as a way for many minorities to escape poverty, and environmental benefits, such as the severe costs that importing oil brings.

“The oil and gas industry has represented a way out of the incredible shame and degradation of intergenerational poverty, especially for Latino families,” noted Supervisor Leticia Perez.

While the number of planned new wells would now be significantly lower from the original county plans made before the appellate court ruling, going from a planned 72,000 wells to a new cap of around 43,000 wells under the 2,700 plan, Supervisors overwhelmingly supported it, passing it 5-0.

Reaction to the Board of Supervisors vote

Environmentalists reacted strongly against the decision on Monday and Tuesday, despite the addition of many more environmental regulations attached to the new ordinance revision.

“Adding tens of thousands of new wells is decidedly not the way we build healthy, sustainable communities,” said Kern County Sierra Club Senior Organizer Mercedes Macias on Monday. ” The result of this vote isn’t the outcome we hoped for, or the one that has the best interests of Kern residents at heart, but the fight is far from over. Now, we turn to our legislature and call on our legislators to pass SB 467 to stop this harmful ordinance from disrupting our communities, making us sick, and damaging our environment.”

Several local lawmakers also reacted negatively to the ordinance.

“The Board of Supervisors has made it abundantly clear that their priorities do not include the future of Kern County’s economy nor the health of marginalized communities,” expressed Delano Mayor Brian Osorio. “We need our leaders to recognize this move will further delay Kern County’s opportunity for a just transition. We should be prioritizing our region’s environment and community’s public health with a long-term focus on creating sustainable jobs. Unfortunately, with today’s vote, our county leaders did not put Kern County first. They have disappointed our at-risk communities while ignoring their health concerns. Now, we look to our state legislators to pass SB467 and put our communities and our environment where they should be: first.”

In contrast, many supporters praised the passage of the ordinance despite the number of new environmental regulations attached to it.

“We supported the plan because it provided certainty by streamlining the process even though it had introduced many new restrictive and costly requirements and mitigation measures,” said Western States Petroleum Association President Catherine Reheis-Boyd on Monday.

Others noted the economic opportunities trumped other concerns, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 recession.

“We were hurt as much as anyone else,” said Bakersfield mining equipment salesman Octavio Castro. “And we haven’t seen as much assistance coming here in the past year. This industry helps Latinos get good paying jobs, and gives California a crucial need in oil. We get a lot of farmworkers, fresh off of getting naturalized, a new start with a job that pays much more. Like how factories helped whites and blacks move up to the middle class last century, this is helping us. And the towns here.

“The environment is important. We get that. But we do need oil, a lot of it, at least for the next few decades. And this will help us with that. California is doing so much more for the environment in other areas where they don’t have to deal with needs. Oil is one, for cars, for power, and for so much more. The environmentalists ignore the human need factor in all of this.

“What passed yesterday, well, it helps everyone.”

As of Tuesday, there have been no legal challenges against the revised ordinance.

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