Judge Grants Ventura County Frontline Groups Permission to Intervene in Neighborhood Drilling Fight

Groups can now stand with Ventura County and defend local health ordinance from oil & gas industry lawsuit in court


Zoe Woodcraft, Earthjustice, zwoodcraft@earthjustice.org

Today, a Ventura County Superior Court judge granted environmental and frontline community groups the right to intervene in defense of Ventura County’s 2040 General Plan and related zoning amendments that establish buffer zones near homes and schools, public health measures to limit air pollution, and a modernized permitting process to protect communities from unchecked expansion of oil and gas drilling. The groups’ participation will ensure, moving forward, that the court has a more complete picture of the environmental justice and climate related issues at stake, which they are uniquely qualified to address.

“Ventura has experienced firsthand deadly wildfires linked to climate change, such as the winter Thomas fire, and the health impacts of reckless oil development next to homes,” said Katie Davis, chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter. “We stand ready to defend the county’s common sense health measures and the closure of loopholes exempting oil from basic oversight and permitting that every other kind of development has to abide by.”

For decades, oil and gas production has threatened the health and safety of those who live, work, learn, and recreate in Ventura County by exposing communities to harmful air pollution and contributing to the catastrophic effects of climate change. Through community advocacy, the County of Ventura closed a permitting loophole that had allowed oil and gas companies to expand their drilling operations without environmental review. The County also enacted critical measures to limit pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, including a ban on flaring or venting, and needed setbacks between residences, schools, and new oil drilling.

The County’s ordinances are in line with ongoing statewide efforts to both phase out fossil fuels in California by 2045 and ensure interim health protections like buffer zones, which CalGEM’s Scientific Advisory Panel has concluded are needed to protect public health, are in place. Right now, CalGEM is engaged in rulemaking that could establish a 3,200-foot buffer between communities and oil wells.

“Setbacks offer some protection to the more than five million Californians who live, work and learn within one mile of an oil and gas site, the majority of which are a part of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities,” said Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator at Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN). “Ventura County’s local ordinance served as an important stopgap in the absence of stronger state protections, and now is not the time to double back.”

Aera Energy, the largest onshore oil and gas producer in Ventura County, now seeks to reopen the permitting loophole, erase the setbacks and public health protection measures, and try to prevent other counties from enacting similar policies in the future. Aera’s lawsuit is part of the oil industry’s multi-pronged attack on the County’s fossil fuel policies, which includes ten other lawsuits and a June 2022 ballot measure to repeal the zoning amendments. Aera has already contributed $5,000,000 to this effort in 2022 along with substantial sums in 2021.

“The 2040 General Plan is a precedent-setting blueprint for a clean energy future — created by and for the people of Ventura County. Aera’s opposition to these common-sense public health and environmental protections is a last-ditch attempt to reinstate the ‘business-as-usual’ processes they previously benefited from,” said Shannon Simpson, executive director at Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas (CFROG). “We support the court’s rejection of Aera’s blatant attempts to silence community voices — whose health and wellbeing have come second to oil profits, for far too long.”

“It is essential for courts to safeguard the authority of state and local governments to protect frontline communities from the harmful health impacts of oil and gas production,” said Elizabeth Fisher, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “Ventura County prioritized the health and wellbeing of its residents, and we intend to defend these critical protections in court.”

Earthjustice and Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP represent Climate First Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG), Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISION), and Sierra Club in the petition to intervene in the case.

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