California Court: Kern County Violating Law by Rubberstamping Oil Drilling


Kern County ordinance written by the oil and gas industry to permit up to 72,000 new wells falters


Zoe Woodcraft, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2071

Caroline Farrell, Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, (661) 720-9140, ext 302

Gabby Brown, Sierra Club, (914) 261-4626

Hollin Kretzmann, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7133

In a monumental victory for both public advocacy groups and local farmers, a California court today ruled that a Kern County oil and gas ordinance paid for and drafted by the oil industry violated the state’s foundational environmental law. A heavily drilled community, Kern County accounts for 70% of the oil produced in California, with over 113 million barrels in 2018.

California’s Fifth District Court of Appeals ruled that a key county analysis failed to disclose the full extent of drilling’s environmental harm, in violation of state law. Kern County used the flawed study to pass an industry-friendly oil and gas ordinance in 2015 and has issued more than a thousand permits a year since it passed.

The court ordered that the environmental impact report and the ordinance be set aside until the county can demonstrate it complies with the law. Kern County must stop issuing permits under the ordinance within 30 days. The ruling means environmental review of new drilling proposals in Kern County will revert back to state authorities.

“This is an important victory for Kern County residents, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. “Kern County residents deserve to know the impacts from oil and gas operations on their community so that we can reduce those impacts and protect our health and environment.”

“Kern County failed to solve drastic water supply and air quality problems when it passed an ordinance written by oil and gas companies to favor the industry over the health of local families. Today, the court rightfully told them to go back to the drafting table,” said Colin O’Brien, staff attorney at Earthjustice who argued the case. “Oil and gas operations compete with families and farmers for scarce fresh water supplies and they pump deadly air pollutants into the Central Valley. Those impacts can’t be ignored.”

“Kern County communities should not be forced to breathe dirty air and compete for clean water supplies in the name of fossil fuel industry profits,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Elly Benson. “We are glad to see the court recognize that the county cannot ignore the severe impacts of this unprecedented attack on the health of local families and our environment.”

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“This is a huge victory for our health and climate,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The court ruled that Kern County violated the law when it fast-tracked more oil and gas development and hid the immense harm caused by drilling. It’s time for state officials to come clean about how much damage this polluting industry is doing to our environment and public health.”

According to the ruling, Kern County violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to fully evaluate and disclose the environmental damage that would occur as a result of the county’s plan to permit up to 72,000 wells over the next 25 years.

The court agreed with local community groups and environmental organizations, joined by a local farm, that this failure to disclose could cause harm from water use, air pollution, farmland degradation, and increased noise. It also faulted the county for not allowing the public adequate time to review a study on the health impacts of oil and gas.

A large majority of oil produced in the state of California comes from Kern County. The 2015 ordinance — written by oil industry consultants — attempted to “streamline” oil and gas permitting in the county by not requiring any further environmental reviews or public notice for up to 3,647 wells per year over the next 25 years.

Numerous environmental, public health, and community organizations spoke out against this ordinance, which would have particularly impacted communities of color in Kern County, who already breathe some of the most polluted air in the country.

The appeal was brought by Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Greenfield Walking Group, represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, together with the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club, who was represented by Earthjustice. King and Gardiner Farms, represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, also appealed and the two cases were consolidated.

Kern County resident Walt Desatoff gazes at an oil derrick.
Kern County resident Walt Desatoff gazes at an oil derrick in one of the most heavily drilled counties in the United States. Most of the oil produced in California comes from Kern County. (Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)

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