© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

Appeals court orders Kern County to rewrite oil permit ordinance – again

Oil pumps are part of the landscape in Kern County, CA, the top oil-producing county in the state.
Harika Maddala
An appeals court ordered Kern County to revise its controversial oil permit ordinance for the second time since 2020.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A California appeals court overturned key parts of Kern County’s controversial oil and gas permitting ordinance last week. It’s the latest blow to the state’s oil industry in a legal saga that has stretched on for nearly a decade.

The ruling, issued last Thursday by judges in Fresno, found deficiencies in the county’s environmental review. All of this stems from a 2015 ordinance allowing the county to fast-track approvals for most new wells.

The court had thrown out most of that first version of the county ordinance in 2020 on similar grounds. Last week’s ruling says the county didn’t go far enough addressing environmental concerns when it passed a revised ordinance in 2021.

Environmental justice advocates viewed Thursday’s decision as a victory for residents living near oil-production sites. About 70% of the state’s crude is drilled in Kern County’s oil fields.

“Kern County is hell-bent on squeezing every last drop of oil out of the ground, no matter the consequences,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several organizations involved with the case against the county. “It’s vital that every permit gets a rigorous review to protect public health and our environment from this dirty and dangerous industry.”

The ruling also extended a suspension put in place last January for local permitting.

The industry’s lobbying firm, Western States Petroleum Association, is litigating the case alongside the county. A spokesperson declined to comment to KVPR, citing the ongoing litigation.

A county spokesperson said attorneys are reviewing the court’s ruling and weighing options, noting that the judges sided with the county in its assessment of air quality impacts and harmful particulate pollution.

“As always, our Kern County Board of Supervisors continues to support our oil industry and environmentally protective oil and gas permitting as part of the energy future of not only Kern County, but California at large,” the county said in an emailed statement.

According to the appeals court ruling, the county’s environmental review did not properly account for industry impacts to groundwater and communities living within a few hundred feet of oil and gas production sites. It also reportedly failed to account for farmland lost to oil production.

The county will have to redo those parts of its review and pass a new ordinance for another shot at regaining local authority over oil and gas permitting. It’s unclear how long that process might take, but the court order is primed to worsen industry complaints around a slowdown in drilling.

California Resources Corporation told investors on a recent earnings call the decision will likely result in a 5% to 7% reduction in annual production and cuts to capital investments.

It’s unclear whether the ruling could imperil a pending $2.1 billion merger between CRC and Bakersfield-based Aera Energy. Both companies laid off about 160 workers last year citing permitting challenges and a pivot toward carbon capture and sequestration technology.

The decision is one of several storm clouds looming over the industry. In November, voters will weigh in on a 2022 state lawlimiting the distance between wells and neighborhoods, also known as a setback.

Opponents spent more than $20 million on the referendum, according to campaign finance records.

Last month, the California Department of Conservation issued a draft rule banning hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking – and other well-stimulation techniques in the state. The agency has also been slow to approve permits for new wells, while bolstering efforts to seal thousands of idle and abandoned wells across the state.

Anabel Marquez, president of Committee for a Better Shafter, vowed to continue her quest to end drilling she considers harmful to her rural community.

“The codependence between Kern and the oil and gas industry may persist in other ways, but we will continue to be thorns in their sides, fighting for the clean air, water and land that we deserve,” she said.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.