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Monday, Dec 10 2012 06:51 PM

Growers, county staff differ over how to address oil-ag controversy

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

County staff and local growers differ sharply over what Kern's Board of Supervisors should do at is meeting Tuesday to address a property access dispute between Shafter-area ag producers and oil and gas companies operating there.

Bakersfield lawyer George Martin, representing a local growers group, said the county ought to require oil companies to get a conditional use permit in cases where they are unable to reach an agreement with the owner of the surface property.

According to his Dec. 7 letter to the board, that could be accomplished in less than 120 days and cost less than $5,000.

"By making these very simple changes to the land use law of the County of Kern, local control, also known as 'home rule,' is brought back to Kern County simply and swiftly," he wrote.

But county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt, writing in a staff report to be considered at Tuesday's meeting, said a much more rigorous process is required that would call for a full environmental review.

That would take 18 months and cost up to $5 million, she has said. Her report suggests that the bill be paid by whichever industry benefits from the change, be it oil or ag.

Oviatt's report called Martin's proposal "premature" and said it would "limit the range of possible solutions" to a series of undisclosed "larger issues" the oil industry wants to discuss with her office.

Oviatt, who did not respond to requests for comment Monday, has recommended that the board delay making a decision on the matter until its Jan. 22 meeting.

A local oil industry representative, Nick Ortiz with the Western States Petroleum Association, sided with Oviatt in stating that a resolution will take long and careful consideration.

"Based on the issues raised by Ms. Oviatt in her staff report, and the complexity of this issue, we agree that the board should continue this item and direct staff to engage both industries in ongoing stakeholder discussions," Ortiz wrote in an email Monday.

Over the last few years, the petroleum industry has butted heads with Shafter-area growers over access to orchards where oil and gas producers own underlying mineral rights.

While oil companies are trying to tap the area's huge and potentially very lucrative Monterey Shale formation, growers say the industry has swept aside its concerns about compensation and fair access to land. They further allege that high-pressure hydraulic fracturing by oil producers threatens to contaminate their water supplies.

The controversy came to a head at the Board of Supervisors' Nov. 13 meeting. That's when Martin told the board that the county should take back environmental review and permitting authority from a "corrupt" state oil agency that disregards growers' concerns.

Four county supervisors expressed support for the idea that the county should reassert control over oil projects in Kern farmland. They asked Oviatt to come back with suggestions as to how they could do that.

Oviatt's staff report warns that Martin's proposal would expose the county to costly litigation by oil companies unhappy about not receiving an operating permit from the county.

The debate could have statewide implications. The state has been sued at least three times over its approval of oil projects on Kern farmland. Each suit focused on the oil project's environmental review, or alleged lack of such a review.

State oil regulators have hinted that they are open to revising their environmental review process. That could involve handing over some permitting authority to counties including Kern, California's most productive oil county.

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