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Tuesday, Dec 11 2012 04:30 PM

Supervisors welcome signs of compromise on oil-ag conflict

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Hopes ran high Tuesday that an emerging compromise could resolve the property access conflict between Shafter-area growers and oil producers operating on the same land.

Although few details were disclosed publicly and significant work apparently lies ahead, county supervisors welcomed indications that both sides support a tentative proposal worked out the night before in a meeting with county staff.

At a morning meeting of the county Board of Supervisors, board member Mike Maggard thanked the parties involved for "pausing and stepping back from the edge," adding that much is at stake in the dispute pitting members of the county's two biggest industries against each other.

"It is imperative that we reach a solution that works," Maggard said.

The talks are aimed at addressing growers' complaints that oil companies expanding operations in the Shafter area have been brushing aside the farmers' concerns about property access and fair compensation for disrupting their orchards and fields. Growers have also accused oil companies of practices that could contaminate the local water supply.

People involved in Monday's closed-door discussion said the potential deal would not require oil producers to get a conditional use permit from the county if they are unable to reach an agreement with growers, as a lawyer representing a farmer group had proposed.

Nor, they said, would the compromise require the 18-month, $5 million environmental review that county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt had warned could be necessary to achieve the growers' goal of making the county primarily responsible for permitting local oil projects.

Instead, as Oviatt explained at Tuesday's meeting, the proposed solution would allow appeals to the Board of Supervisors in cases of lingering disagreement between surface property owners (usually growers, in such cases) and mineral rights owners (typically oil and gas producers).

Another party to Monday's discussions said the proposal would provide growers with advance notification whenever an oil company needs access to ag land.

Oviatt asked for until Jan. 22 to work out the details, saying the proposal would be unique in California. The board voted unanimously to give her the time she requested.

Larry Moxley, spokesman for Shafter-area growers organized under the name The Committee to Protect Farmland and Clean Water, told the board that he appreciated Oviatt's mediation work but wanted to make sure county supervisors will be ready to take action at the Jan. 22 meeting.

"We're open, we're willing," he said.

Oviatt said she would work to have an "interim solution" ready for approval at that meeting.

Another reservation raised during a public comment period on the issue Tuesday was voiced by Les Clark, executive vice president of Bakersfield's Independent Oil Producers Agency. He told the county not to count out state regulators, who he said could complicate the discussions.

"I'd just be real cautious when dealing with them," the said.

Oviatt told the board she has been in contact with state oil regulators, who she said "have expressed their complete cooperation."

People involved in trying to resolve the conflict said a key point of agreement under Oviatt's proposal is that any solution to the conflict would be kept separate from the broader but related issue of giving the county new responsibility to review and approve local oil projects -- a duty now carried out by state regulators.

Moxley said that if the two parties can come together on the property access conflict, then the state-level issues "can resolve themselves."

A key player in the conflict, Shafter-area nut grower Keith Gardiner, said after the meeting that the committee was hoping for a resolution by Christmas. He acknowledged, however, that Oviatt has "a lot of work to do" to formalize the proposed compromise.

"Let's see what (county staff) recommend on the 22nd" of January, he said.

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