A clash is brewing between Kern’s petroleum industry and members of the county’s agriculture sector over a plan to streamline local oil and gas permitting.
Despite a compromise proposed to smooth relations between the two industries in cases of split ownership of farming properties, growers have mounted a vigorous challenge to a county environmental review at the heart of the permitting plan, which is backed financially by oil interests.
That the environmental document is being carefully scrutinized by lawyers is no surprise: County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt predicted the permitting plan would spark lawsuits when the Board of Supervisors ordered the review in early 2013.
But it was unclear then that a Wasco farming company, Pacific Ag Management Inc., would attack the project with an intensity equal to or greater than that of environmental activists the oil industry is accustomed to battling in court.
The conflict will likely spill over into public debate in coming weeks as the permitting plan undergoes review by the county Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The commission is scheduled to discuss the matter at its 5 p.m. Monday meeting at the board’s chambers, 1115 Truxtun Ave. Both bodies are expected to vote on the plan as soon as next month.
Pacific Ag’s opposition, detailed in more than 100 pages of legal arguments by San Francisco law firm Shute Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, suggests Oviatt and her staff have been unable to appease both sides of a dispute that lawmakers have left mostly unresolved at the state level.
COMPLEX LEGAL DISPUTE
The dispute involves a tricky real estate situation called “split estates,” in which surface rights belong to one party — farmers, in this case — and the underlying mineral rights are controlled by an oil producer.
Pacific Ag, joined by a group of other local farmers, contend oil companies have run roughshod over their property, ruining roads, wiping out productive acreage and leaving behind large tanks and pipelines, without offering adequate compensation for the damage they cause.
While other states have clearly established property owners’ respective rights, California has offered little legal guidance, essentially leaving the two parties to work out their differences privately or settle them in court.
The county was keenly aware of the conflict before it began an environmental review required as part of the oil industry’s proposal to amend Kern’s zoning ordinances to make well permitting a strictly ministerial.
Oviatt has suggested a series of incentives intended to bring both sides together.
Insisting that the county cannot legally deny oil producers access to land beneath certain ag properties, she proposed a quick review if a petroleum company is able to get the grower’s signature on its plan. But if the farmer refuses to sign, the oil producer would have to spend far more time and money completing its project — months instead of days, and many thousands of dollars in added costs.
Pacific Ag’s president, Keith Gardiner, asserted in an email Friday that the county’s environmental review was inadequate, and that the zoning changes proposed “do not come close to protecting the surface owners’ rights or the valuable agricultural resources our county is blessed with.”
“Without landowner ‘sign off’ or (agreement) on significant land use issues that affect the surface owner, continued conflict will most likely occur,” Gardiner wrote.
The oil trade group Western States Petroleum Association said in an email it is not against Oviatt’s proposal for requiring oil companies to spend more time and money on their projects if the surface property owner refuses to sign off on drilling plans.
“This delay represents a considerable burden on the industry and goes beyond the requirements of state law. Still, our members are willing to accept it, as a compromise with agricultural stakeholders,” wrote WSPA’s vice president of production regions, Suzanne Noble.
“Nevertheless, we are not willing to compromise further on a requirement for either surface owner sign-off or a conditional use permit in order to access mineral rights on split estate lands.”
She asserted that the industry’s opponents on the matter aren’t truly interested in protecting their property from harm.
“This is about the economic relationship between surface and mineral owners, not about environmental protection,” she said in the email.
County planners addressed both sides’ concerns in lengthy written responses to public comments sent in response to a draft environmental review of the permitting plan distributed publicly during the summer.
Besides listing dozens of measures proposed to soften the impact of petroleum production on local farmland, county staff pointed out the extra costs its plan would impose on oil companies unable to reach agreement with growers.
But the county emphasized it lacks the authority to deny oil companies legal access to land controlled, on the surface, by farmers. If it tried to do so, the county said, it might be held financially liable by petroleum producers.
“The county does not have the resources to compensate mineral rights holders for the lost value of their investments,” the county wrote.
This article was written by John Cox from The Bakersfield Californian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.