Fifth District Court of Appeals Challenges Kern County’s 2015 EIR for Oil Wells

Published On: March 3, 2020

On February 25, the 5th District Court of Appeals threw out a Kern County law that allowed oil and natural gas producers to rely on the approval of a single environmental impact report (EIR) for nearly 70,000 wells, stating that the county’s law was in violation of California’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The court ruled that Kern County’s blanket environmental review process for more than 67,000 gas and oil wells violated Kern County’s policy, finding that it did not accurately address agricultural land, noise, and water impacts. The court gave the County 30 days to stop issuing permits until the violations were addressed. This ruling effectively stays all future permits until the matter is resolved, but allows continued activity for permits issued before the court’s decision.

In 2015, Kern County streamlined its review process by doing a blanket review for oil and gas wells after the industry asked for the change. At the time, the proposal was considered a landmark idea that established new zoning laws and creating a program EIR. Under a program EIR, Kern County would review all of the potential impacts of the oil and gas industry over a 25-year period rather than on a project-by-project basis. The project EIR would develop plans to mitigate the potential cumulative impacts on the environment and the appropriate actions the oil and gas industry would need to take to address such concerns. In return, the oil and gas industry would only need ministerial permits from the County, though they would still need to receive approval from the State.

While it is unknown whether Kern County will appeal the decision, it is clear that the County will look to keep its zoning ordinance and EIR.

In response to the ruling, Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said, “The appeals court has provided a roadmap for us to correct our analysis and provides the public with the information it needs to understand our decision-making process and adopt a new ordinance. We will not only get it right; we will improve the ordinance and once again ensure our communities are protected from environmental harm, as well as having jobs that support families and create new generations of Kern County residents living and working in healthy communities.” 

No matter what the County decides to do, this will have a significant impact on the State’s gas and oil supply as Kern County accounts for more than two-thirds of the State’s oil and three-fourths of the State’s gas production.

The court ruling is available here.

About the Author: Matt Ross

Matt Ross is a Senior Consultant in the energy industry and has more than a dozen years of experience in state government. He can be reached at matt at govreport.org