County weighing options after court of appeal invalidates oil EIR

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET)  — County of Kern officials spent the day Wednesday considering their options following Tuesday’s court decision invalidating the county’s groundbreaking but controversial ordinance streamlining the environmental review process for oil production.

The state’s Fifth District Court of Appeal struck down Kern’s five year old landmark zoning ordinance, saying it violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The court gave the County 30 days to officially remove the ordinance from the books.

The County is still formulating its response, but one thing is certain — planning department officials will rewrite the ordinance, modifying the sections of the massive, multifaceted document to address the court’s concerns — and keep the rest.

We spoke to Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt about 24 hours after she got the news of the court’s decision, and she told KGET the county remains committed to the ordinance.

“The representation that’s made by these people who have sued,” she said. “…. is that we are harming the environment and that we are somehow not holding the oil companies to account. In reality we are holding them to a standard that is found nowhere else in California.”

Oviatt said the EIR covers oil bearing lands that have sufficiently similar environmental characteristics.

“The charm of this is it’s only for the 2.3 million acres (in oil production) in Kern County, in the Valley, and we actually know a lot about the Valley,’ she said. “We have the San Joaquin Uplands Plan and other plans and know there’s a lot of biological studies that have been going on for 50 years. And we have this defined area.  

“So it’s not like suddenly an oil well is going to show up in Mojave. It’s not going to happen. It’s this defined area, and we were able to characterize that. Now, it takes a lot of analysis. This is not a small EIR for 100 houses. And it was complicated and we managed to streamline that so the readers could understand it.”

Oviatt said the new ordinance will in many ways be superior to the one struck down Tuesday because county officials have learned a lot over the past four years.

“In reality it’ll be a new ordinance because we have to put it back in,” she said. “It’s going to be the same structure of an ordinance as far as I’m concerned. But when you take something out for a test drive because we tested it over 8,400 permits over the past four years, we found some places where we can probably do better. Let’s do better.”

Oil companies have paid hundreds of thousands of mitigation dollars over the past four years — and what they’ve received in exchange has been the certainty their permits would be successful. 

“It didn’t save them money, it saved them time, and time is money,” she said.”I don’t think it even saved them time in some ways. What it saved them was uncertainty.”|

The successful plaintiffs included King and Gardiner Farms LLC, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club.

Shafter environmentalist Tom Frantz, of the Association of Irritated Residents, which was not a party to the lawsuit, was encouraged by the ruling.

“If the County rewrites this ordinance, it means we’re going to get stronger mitigation to the permitting process,” he said. “And if it addresses everything we’re concerned about, it can’t be a one size fits all EIR.”

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