Business

Monday, Jan 21 2013 05:37 PM

County offers ideas for resolving oil-ag conflict

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

County staff are asking the Board of Supervisors Tuesday for conceptual approval of measures they hope will restore peace between local growers and oil producers.

A set of proposals by county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt offers short- and long-term ideas for dealing with conflicts that have arisen in recent years as oil producers increasingly set up drilling operations on Kern farmland.

Her near-term plan would require mineral rights owners such as oil and gas producers to work out land use details with surface property owners, primarily growers. If their talks reach an impasse -- and if it's unrelated to the issues of financial compensation or environmental impacts -- then either party could appeal to the Board of Supervisors for a final ruling.

Oviatt's long-term proposal would give the county primary authority for permitting oil and gas projects in Kern, where more than three-quarters of all California oil is produced. For decades such authority has rested with state officials.

The general idea of shifting permitting authority to local officials has received support from the state Department of Conservation, which is defending itself against lawsuits that accuse it of failing to perform proper environmental reviews of oil projects on Kern farmland.

Both of Oviatt's proposals were crafted in private consultation with local oil and ag industry representatives late last year and early this year.

A local oil industry representative who has been active in the discussions, Nick Ortiz of the Western States Petroleum Association, indicated that the industry still has concerns with the short-term plan.

"While we appreciate the efforts of county staff, after reviewing their proposal we believe that a substantial number of issues must be resolved before we can move forward," he wrote in an email. "However, we are confident that, through good-faith discussions and continued effort, the historically productive and mutually beneficial relationships between agriculture and oil in Kern County can be maintained and strengthened."

A spokesman for a group of Shafter-area growers who brought the conflict before the board in November declined Monday to comment on Oviatt's proposals.

According to the county staff report, much remains to be worked out, including a few central concepts. Among these are an oil industry "bonding option" on which Oviatt said she had little information, and a Civil Code provision that gives mineral rights owners access to their property with a 30-day notification "even without an agreement with the surface owner."

The county staff report says March is the soonest any interim, appeals-based solution can be put in place. It also indicates that an 18-month environmental review would be needed for the longer-term permitting solution that probably cannot be established until 2015.

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