Kern County Approves Fast Track for Oil and Gas

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By unanimous vote, on Monday night the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a dangerous new zoning law that would make approval--of roughly the next 70,000 applications to drill for oil--automatic.

The law is designed to give the oil industry a free pass and to skirt the in-depth environmental review and public participation required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The zoning ordinance and related environmental impact report (EIR) could have devastating consequences for communities that are already overburdened by pollution, and for the air, groundwater, and agricultural lands local residents depend on.

We believe what the County is attempting to do is illegal. If the Board of Supervisors won't stand up to the oil industry, then we will.

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In the Golden State, Kern County is the heartland of big oil. The County currently produces over 75 percent of California's oil, and we don't need to look deep into the future to know what the toll of all this heavy industrial activity might be. We can look at Kern today and see that the findings of "no-significant-impact" in the EIR, rubberstamped by the Board of Supervisors, cannot be supported.

Decades of oil production have left a toll. Kern County has some of the dirtiest air in the state, with areas in chronic non-attainment for ozone and dust or particulate matter. The region's groundwater is also threatened. The County is peppered with open percolation pits, and a recent scandal revealed that operators have been illegally injecting wastewater-- from fracking and other oil production operations -- into protected aquifers, a violation of federal law.

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These negative impacts disproportionately burden Hispanics, Latinos, and African Americans in Kern County. According to a recent NRDC study, nearly 300,000 people live within a mile of an oil well in Kern County, half of whom are also in neighborhoods already exposed to pollution. The zoning law and EIR ignore this unfair burden of pollution, and, instead, the ordinance attempts to avoid any additional environmental review in the future and to fast-track oil and gas development for decades.


As we pointed out in our two comment letters on the EIR, available here and here, among other problems, the EIR ignored the recommendations of the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST). California is one of the few states that still allow permitting for percolation pits, an outdated water management method in which earthen ponds are filled with wastewater that is then allowed to soak into the ground. According to the CCST report, percolation pit use should be phased out unless it can be shown that hazardous chemicals aren't present in the wastewater, because of the significant risk that toxic chemicals will leach into our precious groundwater. Similarly, the CCST recommended that we limit using chemicals we don't yet understand, especially in the course of hydraulic fracturing, and avoid using wastewater from fracking for irrigation in order to preserve environmental and human health.


Sara Atsbaha, NRDC Legal Fellow, raised these concerns and others at the public hearing in Bakersfield Monday night. Sara stood with concerned Kern residents, many of whom turned out for the hearing Monday night, as well as several groups, including the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment and, that organized a large statewide showing of support for local residents.

But the Board of Supervisors didn't listen. Playing fast and loose with our drought-stricken water resources, the Board gave industry and the EIR the greenlight. We think that's unacceptable.

This post was written by Giulia Good Stefani and Sara Atsbaha.
All photos credit of: Brooke Anderson, Brooke Anderson Photography