Kern Co. OKs fixes to restore local oil permitting system

A Kern County judge halted local officials’ ability to approve oil permits quickly. Tuesday’s action gets the ball rolling for more energy extraction. Here’s why.

Kern’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a series of changes Tuesday intended to revive the county’s embattled oil and gas permitting system.

The board’s action on idle oilfield equipment on farmland, fine-particulate emissions and a fund for drinking water systems constituted county government’s response to a June court ruling that faulted aspects of Kern’s longstanding efforts to streamline local oil permitting.


Staff’s plan now is to return to Kern County Superior Court on Sept. 28 to persuade Judge Gregory Pulskamp to declare its 7-year-old permitting system, which has been on hold since October, compliant with the California Environmental Quality Act.

Supervisors’ 5-0 vote came after a public hearing less than two hours long at which industry backers said putting the permitting system back in place would support local jobs, economic activity and the county’s ability to provide local services.

Outnumbered industry opponents countered that oil and gas production is a fiscally unsteady activity that pollutes the local environment without providing consistent financial benefits.

At one point during the hearing, Supervisor Leticia Perez asked a member of the public for additional information, but other than that, no board members spoke up or shared their views of the action being considered Tuesday.

The hearing was the latest in a process that has continued since the board first approved, in late 2015, a system allowing oil and gas producers to receive permits for drilling and other work in exchange for fees and compliance with county rules. Previously, the county permitted production implicitly, leaving state regulators to make sure work proposed adhered to CEQA.

Anti-oil activists and a local almond grower have resisted the county’s efforts at every turn, saying broad environmental assessments such as the county proposes ignore local conditions. They argue oilfield projects should be reviewed one at a time.

The county’s strategy, funded by the oil industry, has been to continue refining its permitting system until it has been found to comply with state regulations. The effort suffered a substantial appellate-court defeat in 2020 that led the board last year to make changes. But Pulskamp ruled in June that more amendments would have to be made to bring the system into full compliance.

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