In a split for oil, enviros, judge orders fixes to Kern Co. oil permit rules

A high-stakes ruling that could have brought permitting of oil wells to a grinding halt was more of a dud for environmental advocates.

A court ruling handed down Tuesday in the high-stakes lawsuit over local oil permitting dealt partial defeat to both sides, dismissing several arguments made by opponents of Kern’s system but appearing to find that county government must fix its massive environmental review before continuing to issue drilling permits.

Tuesday’s ruling by Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp upheld the county’s revised environmental review in several key areas but found that, with respect to deficiencies including air pollution mitigation and the document’s “statement of overriding consideration,” the county has not fully complied with the California Environmental Quality Act.


The 6-year-old case has been followed closely by environmentalists and the petroleum industry alike because it will determine whether oil companies can simply go to the county and pay fees in exchange for permits, as they did before the court’s intervention, or whether each individual permit request calls for a separate environmental assessment.

The county’s expectation has long been that the environmental review would be refined over time until the document passes legal muster. Figuring that would take years, it secured an indemnity agreement so that the industry would cover its legal costs.

Lawsuits filed by almond grower Keith Gardiner, a local oil producer and several environmental groups greeted the county’s original approval of the environmental assessment in 2015.

The county initially prevailed in court but, on appeal, was ordered in early 2020 to stop issuing permits until it had fully addressed faults in the document. Last year the county made changes, approved them and resumed permitting — until October, when Pulskamp ordered a halt to permitting until legal proceedings could determine whether the county’s changes were sufficient.

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