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Kern County farmers take on oil industry, California

SHAFTER — In this lush pocket of Kern County, where the agriculture and oil industries have long coexisted, Mike Hopkins' almond orchard has become a battlefield in a dispute that extends to the governor's office.

Hopkins is standing up to the oil industry — and Gov. Jerry Brown — by filing a lawsuit against the state to bar energy company Venoco Inc. from drilling an exploratory well on his farm without a full environmental review. Venoco has the mineral rights to Hopkins' 38-acre farm.

Across Kern County, other farmers are waging similar fights. With oil prices booming and energy companies eager to develop new wells, the state has granted oil companies permission to drill on farms without first assessing possible harm to the environment, as called for under the California Environmental Quality Act.

"I want the oil industry to make money," Hopkins said. But not if the drilling damages his farm and livelihood.

The exemptions from CEQA are precisely what Brown sought late in 2011 when he replaced two top officials in the state Conservation Department with appointees who agreed to ease environmental restrictions on energy companies.

In the months afterward, the department granted oil companies 19 exemptions statewide — a six-fold increase from the year before — and 14 energy firms gave more than $1.1 million to the governor's tax initiative, Proposition 30, which voters approved in November.

"I've never seen a CEQA exemption I didn't like," Brown told reporters at a news conference earlier this year.

In Kern, farmers pushed back after the state granted 16 exemptions in California's richest oil county. Four farmers wrote a letter to the state accusing officials of skirting the law by granting environmental waivers. The letter, sent in August by Irvine lawyer Gregory Sanders, asked regulators to explain "an institutional pattern and practice … in which the requirements of CEQA are disregarded" when considering oil permits.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what could go wrong with an oil well," Sanders said in an interview.

State officials and the governor's office declined to respond to questions for this story. But in a written statement to The Times, the Conservation Department's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources defended the general use of exemptions.

The statement said oil projects are evaluated case by case, taking into consideration several factors, including proximity to residential communities and whether sites are in existing oil fields.

Nearly all of the state's exemptions cite the same CEQA provision: The operation would result in only a "minor alteration to land."

Environmental groups challenge that interpretation. They note that the provision is typically applied to small projects. The law gives such examples as painting bicycle lanes on a street, clearing flammable vegetation around a home and hosting a carnival in a parking lot.

"It's difficult for us to see how the exemption would ever apply to a new oil and gas well," said George Torgun, an attorney with Earthjustice, one of several environmental groups that have filed lawsuits against the state.

The energy industry contends the exemptions are needed to avoid lengthy delays, helping the economy in the process.

State data shows that the drive for oil is helping Kern County's recovery. The county is just 3,400 jobs short of matching its peak employment of 239,600, reached in 2007 at the height of the housing boom.

Emails obtained by The Times through a Public Records Act request show that before Brown fired the two Conservation Department officials, oil lobbyists had pushed regulators for exemptions — and appealed to higher-ranking state officials when the requests were denied.

In one case, Elena Miller, the Conservation Department's oil and gas supervisor, complained to her boss that AERA Energy had cleared land for well construction and built roads before doing a CEQA study.

"We can presume that little critters lived in that vegetation," she wrote. "This is their environmental program, tear it up, build a road, and then hire a (CEQA) consultant."

Brown fired Miller, saying she and others had needlessly slowed the permit process.

After a legal challenge by environmentalists, the Conservation Department recently voided one of its CEQA exemptions, telling Century Resources in a letter that its proposed exploratory well in a Kern County vineyard "will result in more than a minor alteration" of the land.

Kern County knows the consequences of oil operations gone bad. It is home to the largest oil-well blowout in American history.

In 1910, the Lakeview Gusher erupted and spewed 9 million barrels of crude across the landscape, creating a lake of oil so deep that people used boats to cross it. The site gushed for 18 months, until the well caved in and sealed itself.

Despite that history, Kern County's government has little environmental oversight of oil drilling. In 1957, Kern County passed an "unrestricted drilling" ordinance, declaring farming and oil exploration compatible land uses.

As a result, the state's largest oil-producing county is one of the few jurisdictions in California that does not enforce CEQA for oil projects.

Lorelei Oviatt, the county's planning director, said oil's long history in Kern County has shown it to be a responsible steward and a vital industry. Local oversight would be redundant because the state already regulates oil drilling, she said.

But after more than half a century, that may be about to change. Under pressure from farmers, the Kern County Board of Supervisors said last month it is considering taking control of environmental reviews.

Few know the environmental risk there better than Fred Starrh, a farmer with 6,000 acres of pistachios, cotton, almonds and alfalfa.

In 2001, Starrh sued AERA Energy for allowing 600 million barrels of oil wastewater to seep from unlined ponds into the subsurface of his farm. The damage contaminated his groundwater and killed his almond trees, he said.

A jury agreed and awarded Starrh $8.5 million in 2009, but he appealed, saying the award didn't come close to the amount needed to rehabilitate his land. He is now pursuing punitive damages.

"We can't use our water," Starrh said.

Hopkins, the almond farmer, fears a similar fate.

On a recent afternoon, he drove his Jeep past an oil field of bobbing pump jacks and abandoned storage tanks to check on a dying cherry orchard, a few miles from Venoco's proposed oil well. Tests have shown toxic levels of chloride in his groundwater, he said. Hopkins suspects nearby drilling activities, but neither state nor local authorities can pinpoint the cause.

"It's heartbreaking to me," he said, pointing to rows of wilting trees, their branches bowed with dead leaves.

"If I'm required to do certain things for water, air, dust, fertilizer and pesticide," he said, "why is it unfair to ask another industry to do the same?"

michael.mishak@latimes.com

Times researchers Robin Mayper and Kent Coloma contributed to this report.

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