Groups sue Kern County over plan to allow drilling of thousands of new oil wells

Several oil pump jacks in a field
Pump jacks sprawl over an oil field near Taft, Calif. Environmental groups are suing to prevent oil-rich Kern County from permitting tens of thousands of oil and gas wells in the next two decades.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Environmental and community groups have sued Kern County after the prime oil-drilling region approved a plan to fast-track thousands of new wells in a state that’s positioned itself as a leader in combating climate change.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a revised ordinance that could lead to approval of more than 40,000 new oil and gas wells over roughly 15 years.

The Sierra Club and other groups asked a court Wednesday to order county leaders to set aside the ordinance and bar them from approving any drilling permits.


The county didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

A state appeals court ruled last year that a 2015 Kern County ordinance violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not fully evaluating or disclosing environmental damage that could occur from drilling. New drilling permits were not issued while the county returned to the drawing board.

The revised ordinance would allow the county to use a blanket environmental impact report when considering as many as 2,700 new wells a year.

Kern County is the state’s leading fossil fuel producer and also a major agricultural area. It accounts for about 80% of all oil and gas production in California, with about 1 in 7 workers in the county of 900,000 having a job tied to the oil industry.

Supervisors argued that the fossil fuel industry provides good jobs and that production under local requirements would be more environmentally sound than bringing foreign oil into the nation’s most populated state by truck, ship or pipeline.

Even as California transitions from fossil fuels, a Central Valley county approved an industry blueprint to expand oil and gas drilling.

March 9, 2021

The lawsuit notes that Kern County already has some of the most polluted air in the United States. It contends that the revised ordinance was based on “unrealistic assumptions” about pollution and failed to evaluate all the health risks.


The county also failed to provide Spanish-language versions of its notices about the ordinance even though it is majority Latino and many people speak Spanish as their primary language, according to the lawsuit.

The ordinance is “a disaster for public health,” especially for poor communities and people of color who live next to oil wells, said Chelsea Tu, senior attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which is representing several community groups in the lawsuit.

The oil and gas industry faces challenges from California lawmakers and environmental groups for creating air and water pollution and contributing to climate change.

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a ban on the sale of new gas-powered passenger cars and trucks by 2035. New legislation would ban all fracking by 2027, limiting a technique by energy companies to inject water, sand, gravel and chemicals in the ground at high pressure to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas.