Oil

Tuesday, Mar 26 2013 06:06 PM

County oil plan may duck land use conflict

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The county's plan to overhaul local oil project reviews might sidestep the contentious issue of mineral versus surface rights, Kern's top planner said Tuesday.

County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt told members and guests of the Water Association of Kern County that the plan would "perhaps" deal with the respective responsibilities of mineral and surface rights owners.

The issue has divided Kern's two biggest economic drivers as surface owners (farmers, in many cases) accuse mineral rights owners (usually oil producers) of running roughshod over their orchards and fields.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors stepped into the conflict in December. In January supervisors directed Oviatt to begin crafting an interim public process for resolving such conflicts. Discussions between the groups are ongoing.

With the same vote, the board launched an 18-month review that could allow the county to take over the state's lead role in permitting oil projects in the county.

Oviatt said the longer-term plan would not incorporate the interim process because the overarching law -- the California Environmental Quality Act -- cannot take into account negotiations between private parties such as mineral and surface rights owners.

Two representatives of a group that advocates for local surface rights owners, the Committee to Protect Farmland and Clean Water, declined to comment on Oviatt's statements. One said he didn't want to say anything because he was not at the meeting; the other said ongoing discussions made the topic too sensitive.

Oviatt's presentation to the water association, as well as answers she gave in response to audience questions, dealt with the possible scope of the county's oil permitting plan.

She said environmental mitigation work may become part of the plan, including setting aside land in cases where endangered species are found to exist in oil project areas.

Oviatt also said the plan may spell out different requirements for oil projects in distinct areas, such as in western Kern County, where groundwater is undrinkable.

The plan will integrate new hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," regulations now under consideration by state oil regulators. Rules for the controversial oil extraction process are scheduled to be approved before the county's plan goes up for a final vote.

Oviatt said the plan is also expected to guide development of the Monterey Shale, a vast oil formation underlying much of the southern Central Valley that oil companies hope will yield billions of barrels of crude.

An important benefit to having the county take over local oil permitting, she said, is that individual projects cannot be challenged by lawsuits once the county's plan has been established. That's because the plan centers around a single environmental review for all of Kern County.

"It can be litigated," she said of the environmental review. "But here's the beauty: It can only be litigated once."

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