California Drilling Plan Verges on Insanity, Environmentalists Say


BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - Environmental groups sued Kern County for a zoning revision they say will allow the oil industry to drill 73,000 new oil wells in unincorporated areas - 10 a day for 20 years.

Among the severe and illegal shortcomings of the new county ordinance is that it treats the drilling of 72,490 oil and gas wells on 2.3 million acres for 20 years as a single project, the local and national environmental groups say.

The Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Bakersfield-based Greenfield Walking Group sued the county, its Board of Supervisors and its planning and development department on Thursday in Superior Court. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined as plaintiffs. It is the Top Download at Courthouse News on Monday.

The Western States Petroleum Association, California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Independent Oil Producers Agency are named as real parties in interest.

"The oil industry is trying to fast-track permitting for thousands of oil wells," plaintiffs' attorney William Rostov told Courthouse News.

"It's unfortunate that the Board of Supervisors went along with the oil industry on this. Our clients feel they have no other recourse but to take it to court."

Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, already has some of the worst air pollution in the country, from oil drilling, pesticides, dust and microparticulates, and ozone from auto and farm machinery exhaust.

The rezoning violated the California Environmental Quality Act, one of whose purposes is to educate the public about projects in their vicinity, Rostov said.

He said the new ordinance would drastically transform Kern County and have a "tremendous effect" on water and air quality. The county knows about the impacts, but did not properly analyze them, he said.

 "This is a very important case that could affect Kern for decades to come," Rostov said. "We think we have a very good case."

According to the lengthy complaint: "Proposed and paid for by the oil industry, the ordinance and the accompanying final environmental impact report ('Final EIR') purport to authorize the development of up to 3,647 new oil and gas wells and extensive associated construction and operation activities, each year for 20 to 25 more years, without any further, site-specific assessment of those activities' health and other environmental impacts. The ordinance jeopardizes the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people across Kern County."

Kern County, population 839,631, at the southern end of the Central Valley. Nearly the size of New Jersey, it extends from Delano, its northernmost city, south to the Tehachapi Mountains, east into the Mojave Desert and west across the San Joaquin Valley.

Its two biggest industries are agriculture and oil and gas development. Kern produces one-tenth of the nation's petroleum and is the top oil-producing county in California, with 81 percent of the state's active oil wells.

That number will surge drastically if the amended ordinance, approved on Nov. 9, is allowed to stand, the environmentalists say.

The county estimates that 10 new wells will be built each day for the next 20 years - 72,940 of them. Related infrastructure, such as new well pads and pipelines, will cover 2.3 million acres, all without further environmental review, according to the complaint.

"Such extensive industrial development will dramatically transform the character of Kern County and will expose the county's residents and natural resources to all manner of significant harm," the plaintiffs say.

Kern is ecologically diverse, containing several rivers, mountains, orchards, croplands and grazing land. It includes several protected areas, including the Kern Wildlife Refuge and parts of Los Padres National Forest, and is home to 166 threatened or endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, California condor, and blunt nosed leopard lizard.

It also has some of the worst air quality in the country. Land designated for the project area is already at extreme nonattainment for federal ozone and fine particulate matter standards and state coarse particulate matter standards. Many towns are among the nation's most threatened by pollution, and 122,000 residents, most of them Latino and other people of color, already live within a mile of an oil well, the complaint states.

The county has been hit hard by drought. Most if its groundwater basins, which are under the project area, are overdrawn and classified as "high priority" for conservation, according to the complaint.

Though oil and gas production are partly to blame for decreased groundwater levels and water shortages, the plaintiffs say, the Board of Supervisors in January 2013 began developing the proposed ordinance at the behest of oil and gas companies.

"The ordinance's defining feature is its adoption of a so-called 'ministerial' permitting process for new oil and gas wells," which requires the county to determine whether a permit meets the ordinance's requirements and grant it within seven business days, according to the complaint.

By designating the unincorporated areas a single project, the county could use the ministerial process to approve up to 3,647 wells a year for the next two decades, the complaint states.

Visit Courthouse News for complaint and more on this story.

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