In oil-rich Kern County, Arvin poised to regulate petroleum companies for first time in 53 years

July 11, 2018 /

By Marcos Cabrera

After months of inaction, Arvin City Council members will decide this month whether to impose new regulations on future oil and gas facilities in the city of Arvin, potentially pushing petroleum operations back 300 feet from homes and schools.

Arvin City Council approved a first reading of the gas code update July 3. The 3-0 vote paved the way for a second reading and potential final passage at a July 17 meeting.

The original petroleum facilities and operations code was adopted in 1965. More than half a century later, it is being updated with support from community advocates, but being met with resistance from energy companies that have long reigned supreme in Kern County, which derives much of its economic power from oil.

“This ordinance will set the gold standard to allow the industry to operate within the community, but with environmental public health and safety of the community in mind,” said Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola. “It’s a severely outdated ordinance that needs to be updated.”

With the city’s growing population and the addition of new commercial, residential and business developments located adjacent to active oil wells, the time was right for what city council members deemed “reasonable regulations.”

“(The ordinance) allows the industry to operate within the City of Arvin as long as we keep the health and safety of the community in mind,” Gurrola said.

That sentiment was echoed by Gustavo Aguirre of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. His organization helped rally community support for the updated ordinance.

“Considering the city of Arvin has some of the worst air quality in the nation, updating the ordinance gives a little bit of hope to at least not pollute the air more than it is already,” said Aguirre. “It’s the right decision the council members are making right now.”

Opposition from the oil industry helped to derail an initial effort to update the ordinance in November 2017. That resistance has been consistent throughout the process.

In a statement, Western States Petroleum Association president Catherine Reheis-Boyd took aim at Gurrola’s motives.

“If the mayor is truly concerned about the community of Arvin, instead of imposing a virtual ban on oil and gas production, he could be asking how we can work together to ensure Kern County and all of California continues to have good health, prosperity, and access to safe, affordable and reliable energy,” Reheis-Boyd said. “If we’re talking over each other, not with each other, we’re missing the opportunity to chart an intentional future, together.”

The California Resources Corporation, the state’s largest independent oil and natural gas producer, cited Kern County’s 2015 ordinance as an ideal model in its statement of opposition to the Arvin ordinance.

CRC said the Kern County ordinance was adopted after “the most comprehensive environmental review and Environmental Impact Report ever conducted for California oil and gas activities.”

Opponents of the Kern County ordinance contend that it was drafted by oil industry professionals. It has been challenged in court for streamlining the well permit process in favor of the oil industry.

Letters from the Young Professionals in Energy, Kern County Chapter, the California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Kern Economic Development Corporation urged Gurrola and the city council to either hold off on a decision or consider the economic implications of updated regulations.

The Center on Race Poverty and the Environment pointed to numerous scientific studies that documented the elevated risks of health concerns to residents living close to active oil and gas developments.

One study from the California Council on Science and Technology concluded that infants and children who live near unconventional oil and gas sites have an increased risk of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders and defects.

Gurrola circled back to the 2014 pipeline leak near his neighborhood on Nelson Court that required the evacuation of eight homes after the area was filled with flammable gas. He campaigned on environmental health advocacy as a result.

“I feel I have a mandate for that,” Gurrola said.

He also has the backing of the State Attorney General’s office, whose environmental justice division wrote a letter of support.

The letter cited a University of Maryland study recommending 2000-foot setback for wells in Maryland.

It also cited an ordinance update in oil-rich Dallas, which established a 1,500-foot setback between oil and gas production sites and protected uses.

“This is community driven. The constituents are in support of it,” Gurrola said. “There’s a sense that oil is king around here and we should bow down to them. But Arvin has a right to decide it’s own destiny. The residents are saying we want our health and safety taken into consideration.”