Kern Co. preps fixes to restart oil production permitting

Hamstrung by a court ruling that has halted quick permitting of oil production sites in the south Valley, Kern officials are winding up a pitch to make things easier and get oil flowing again.

Regulatory patches are being proposed to bring Kern’s oil and gas permitting system up to the state’s environmental standard and potentially let the county resume approving new drilling.

A public notice the county paid to have published Thursday listed four steps intended to fix holes in the county’s blanket environmental review as identified in early June by Kern County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pulskamp. That was after the judge halted local permitting in October, returning review authority to the state and effectively restraining production in the heart of California oil country.


The notice set an Aug. 23 public hearing of the county Board of Supervisors, and a public workshop Aug. 1, on a proposal that would require removal of idle oilfield equipment on certain oil permits on farmland. Another “mitigation measure” proposed to soften the industry’s local impact would adopt a regional agreement on fine particulate pollution; two others would remove then replace a community drinking water grant program.

“Kern County is committed to environmentally protective oil and gas permitting in full compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act,” Lorelei Oviatt, director of the county’s Planning and Natural Resources Department, said in a statement. She added that details will be disclosed in a staff report due for release Aug. 18.

Unlike the state’s slower, well-by-well review process, Kern’s system allowed oil producers to get permits over the counter as long as they abided by local regulations and paid substantial fees to help compensate for the pollution their activities caused.

The zoning ordinance was in effect for more than four years until an appellate court suspended permitting in early 2020. The county enacted changes before putting a revised system in place early last year, only to have Judge Pulskamp rule the county had to stop until its changes could be reviewed by the court.

His June rulings represented a mixed result for the county, giving it victories on several issues but requiring still more work in the areas of fine particulates, removal of old oilfield equipment and investment in drinking water infrastructure in disadvantaged communities.

The county’s notice of public hearing refers to changes affecting each of those concerns. Ultimately, it will be up to the judicial system to decide whether Kern has done enough to meet the terms of CEQA.

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