The Kern County Superior Court released its decision Wednesday ordering Kern County to stop issuing oil and gas permits until the Court determines that the County has fixed the legal problems in the County’s 2015 oil and gas ordinance.
Local environmental groups and a local farmer filed lawsuits on the heels of the Kern County Board of Supervisors’ approval of a second iteration of the Kern oil and gas ordinance earlier this year, under which the County began issuing oil and gas permits without first confirming with the Court that the County fully addressed its previous violations of the state’s foundational environmental law, according to a press release.
“The ordinance was already struck down once because the County did not do enough to disclose, let alone reduce the harmful impacts of oil and gas development on our communities,” said Estela Escoto, President of Committee for a Better Arvin. “Given the consequences for our air, water, health, and quality of life, it makes perfect sense that the County must show that it corrected its mistakes before issuing permits.”
In February 2020, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that the County must rescind its original 2015 oil and gas ordinance and cease issuing permits because the County failed to adequately analyze or mitigate significant impacts upon air quality, water supply, agricultural land conversion, and noise. The Court also faulted the County for providing the public with too little time to review a health risk assessment that was released a mere five business days before the 2015 ordinance was adopted. Following the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Superior Court in June 2020 issued an order specifying that the County must refrain from reviewing and approving permits until and unless the oil and gas ordinance is readopted lawfully.
With the Superior Court’s order still in place and two new lawsuits filed challenging the lawfulness of the County’s readopted ordinance, lawyers for frontline community groups, environmental groups, and a local farmer argued that the County wrongly skipped the showing of legal compliance that is required before it renews permitting activity.
“We are heartened that the court stopped the County’s illegal permitting,” said Keith Gardiner, Manager of King and Gardiner Farms. “The County was out of bounds to issue any drilling permits before the court decides if it has complied with CEQA.”
The Court agreed, ruling that the County “did not have authority to unilaterally determine” that its readopted ordinance complied with the law such that oil and gas permitting may resume. The Court therefore ordered the County “to immediately suspend operation of the ordinance” and “to cease reviewing and approving oil and gas permits” under the ordinance until and unless the Court reviews the County’s actions and determines they meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The Court’s ruling does not affect existing permits.
“The County never had any business issuing permits after the Court of Appeals clearly instructed them not to,” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “It shouldn’t have taken a judge’s decision to explain to the County that court orders need to be obeyed, and County officials aren’t above the law.”
There are approximately 78,000 oil and gas wells in Kern County, including more than 40,000 active wells that produce an estimated 80 percent of California’s onshore oil and gas. Nonetheless, the County adopted its 2015 oil and gas ordinance and the 2021 version with the goal of accelerating development for the coming two decades.