Kern County's Fast Track Oil Ordinance Illegally Puts Health of Residents at Risk

It's no secret that Kern County and Big Oil have been friendly for a while. Kern is the biggest oil producing county in the country. But the County went too far when it passed an ordinance - sponsored by the oil industry - that would fast track drilling new wells, fracking, injecting wastewater underground, and a host of other risky oil production-related activities for the next 20 to 25 years.

So we're taking them to court.

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In a complaint filed today, NRDC and a coalition of local community groups and environmental partners argue that Kern broke the law when it got cozy with Big Oil and shirked its duty to protect its residents - particularly its low-income and minority communities, which are already shouldering the burden of health impacts from the industry's activities.

Kern County has a legal mandate to consider protections for its residents and wildlife before it gives industry the unequivocal OK to drill. But the ordinance passed by the Kern County Board of Supervisors last month approved decades of oil and gas development--including fracking and the underground injection of industry wastewater--without any further environmental review. In doing so, we argue, Kern County violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The County used CEQA's "project-level" review--a level of review that is usually applied to the construction of a single supermarket or road--to approve in advance up to 3,647 new wells each year for at least 20 years. This is an amount of activity that is difficult to fathom.

As I've written about before, Kern County already has some of the dirtiest air in the country. And it's the County's most vulnerable that are the most likely to be harmed. Irritation caused by air pollutants that would produce only a slight response in an adult can result in a potentially significant one in a young child, as an NRDC Our Children At Risk health report explains. Children's vulnerability to air pollution arises from their narrower airways and the fact that their lungs are still developing. Our Drilling in California Report found that Kern's large Latino and Hispanic populations are disproportionately affected by existing oil and gas development. 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 new activity the County has just approved is likely to perpetuate this pattern.

The region's groundwater is also in deep trouble. Some of Kern County's aquifers are already critically overdrafted. New oil and gas wells in the County will compete with households, farms and other users for scarce supplies of clean groundwater. They will also generate large amounts of polluted wastewater; much of that will likely be injected deep underground, not recycled and reused.

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Today, we're standing up on behalf of the residents of Kern, who want to protect their families and health from the risks of further oil development without adequate protections. As communities across the state fight for restrictions on where oil companies can drill and for stronger safeguards in their cities and counties, it is critical that we not allow our state's largest oil producing county to ignore clean energy alternatives and to trade away feasible protective measures--for public health, air, and water--for shortsighted profits.

All photos credit of: Brooke Anderson, Brooke Anderson Photography

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Attorney, Marine Mammal and Southern California Ecosystems projects

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