CA appeals court deems County’s oil and gas permitting illegal

March 15, 2024 /

A March 7 decision by a California appeals court has resulted in Kern County being directed to set aside its permitting ordinance. Additionally, county officials will remain prohibited from issuing local permits for oil and gas projects.

The California appeals court unanimously ruled that Kern County had violated the law by using a flawed environmental review for its local oil and gas ordinance designed to fast-track permitting. This is the second time the court has ruled that the county has violated the state’s foundational environmental law with its rubberstamping of oil and gas permits.

“The court’s decision today was a hard-won victory, and we are grateful that the court saw the county’s actions for what they were — dangerous and illegal,” said Anabel Marquez, president of Committee for a Better Shafter. “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.”

Suppose the county tries to move forward with this same environmental review for a third time. In that case, it must adopt a new ordinance and redo its environmental review to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“Today’s ruling sends a clear signal that cutting corners to drill won’t be tolerated at the expense of Kern’s air, water, and soil,” said Mercedes Macias, a Kern County organizer with the Sierra Club. “The county’s attempts to shirk its responsibility to protect the health and safety of Kern residents have been thwarted again, and the Sierra Club and our partners applaud the court’s decision that will block this latest attempt to greenlight projects without adequate safeguards or accountability.”

The California appeals court has previously halted local oil and gas permitting in 2020, with the prior decision finding that Kern County had violated CEQA. More specifically, the county found Kern County’s study of cancer risks from living near multiple wells to be legally deficient and disapproved of the county’s analysis.

This analysis assessed the impacts of drilling 1,000 feet or further away from a sensitive location, even though the county intended to allow drilling as close as 210 feet from a home and 300 feet from a school.

“Fortunately, the court recognized that environmental review is written into our state law for a reason,” said Ann Alexander, a senior attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “It’s obvious that Kern County is willing to flout the law on a serial basis to appease a dying industry, and we’re glad the court did not let them get away with it.”

The court also faulted the county’s failure to adequately evaluate and address the oil and gas industry’s use of water, which is expected to lower groundwater levels in local wells across the county, especially in disadvantaged communities.

And for the oil and gas industry’s significant impacts on farmland, the court ruled that county officials improperly dismissed the possibility of using agricultural conservation easements to combat the oil and gas industry’s conversion of farmland for drilling.

“The court saw right through the county’s deceptive tactics on oil industry pollution and prevented an end run around the state’s fundamental public protections,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Kern County is hell-bent on squeezing every last drop of oil out of the ground, no matter the consequences. It’s vital that every permit gets a rigorous review to protect public health and our environment from this dirty and dangerous industry.”

In 2015 Kern County initially adopted its oil industry-written ordinance designed to fast-track tens of thousands of new wells in the county for decades.

After the court ordered Kern County to scrap its original ordinance and environmental review in 2020, Kern adopted a new ordinance and review in 2021. A group of community organizations — Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Comité Progreso de Lamont — (represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment) sued the county together with Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club (represented by Earthjustice, and with NRDC also representing itself) and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“We’ve been arguing for years on behalf of our clients and the communities most directly impacted by oil and gas extraction in Kern County,” said Colin O’Brien, an attorney at Earthjustice. “The laws designed to protect communities and the environment from one of the state’s most destructive industries can only work if they are enforced. This decision sends a clear message that fossil fuel companies in California are not above the law.”

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Victoria Rodgers

Victoria Rodgers is an editor and reporter for Kern Sol News. Born in Bakersfield, CA, she received her Bachelor of Arts in English from Rockford University in Illinois. She can be reached at