Pictured: Oil wells in Oxnard. Source: California Department of Conservation, Well Finder database. July 22, 2020.
by Kimberly Rivers
On July 16, after an all-day hearing with hours of public input and hundreds of pages of written comments, the Ventura County Planning Commission in a 3-1 vote approved recommendations for the county’s General Plan (GenPlan) and related Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that will now go to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for final approval scheduled for Sept. 1, 2020.
All municipalities in the state are required to have a GenPlan, which governs all land use in that area including resource protection and development. They are updated in full about every 20 years. Ventura County is nearing the end of a four-year process of updating its GenPlan that will be in effect through 2040, with elements related to water, transportation, open space, agriculture and hazards.
Extensive input has focused on reducing contributions to climate change. Public comments have either called for strong climate action, or a delay in the process to allow for a proper review of the economic impacts of proposed restrictions on oil and gas operations, especially in light of the ongoing impacts of the pandemic.
A comment letter from the city of Moorpark was received stating that the county had not “sufficiently” responded to their previous comments raising concerns about “traffic and noise impacts.”
The recommendations include new requirements for oil and gas drilling, including setbacks from homes (1,500 feet) and schools (2,500 feet) and a ban on new natural gas hookups in the county.
ONLINE CORRECTION in red, July 23 (a sentence regarding restrictions on flaring has been removed from the online article).
The planning commission also reaffirmed a General Plan policy banning all flaring of natural gas (a by-product of oil extraction) in oil fields, which was approved in September 2019 by the board of supervisors. Mitigation measures for impacts the flaring ban may have on the oil industry were included in the EIR. Commissioner Phil White (Dist-1), commission chair, raised concerns about those mitigation measures effectively reversing the ban, as they created a pathway for an oil company to declare the flaring ban infeasible. This would allow the county to grant permission to flare, in opposition to stated policy.
Planning staff and Ventura County Counsel Jeffrey Barnes clarified that staff was “not recommending” that the flaring ban mitigation measures be approved.
The final language that now goes before the supervisors will include the flaring ban without any potential loopholes in the mitigation measures.
“The science on setbacks is clear and a minimum of 2,500 feet between homes, schools, sensitive sites and oil wells is needed to protect our most vulnerable communities from toxic emissions,” said Tomás Rebecchi, senior Central Coast organizer for Food and Water Watch. The organization sought to have the 2,500-foot setback expanded to include homes. “We will fight to ensure the Ventura County Board of Supervisors acts boldly to adopt 2,500-foot setbacks across the board for oil and gas wells when it goes to a final vote in September.”
“While the COVID pandemic has captured our attention for several months, it’s only a precursor to what climate change will inflict on us…We have taken unprecedented steps to deal with COVID, now we should be as bold in our response to climate change,” said Todd Collart of Ventura, speaking in person on July 16. He encouraged the county to “investigate a local oil and gas tax even if it’s opposed by the petroleum industry.”
The GenPlan was originally slated to be the county’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), but the EIR demonstrated that the proposed plans and programs fail to meet emission reductions needed for a CAP to be certified.
“Our EIR found that our policies and programs do not provide enough greenhouse gas reductions to achieve the emission reduction targets noted in our guiding principle,” clarified Susan Curtis, GenPlan Update manager with the Ventura County Planning Department. Not meeting those targets means that the plan cannot be certified as a Climate Action Plan.
ONLINE CORRECTION July 23: Goals, policies and programs aimed at reducing emissions to combat Climate Change are included throughout the GenPlan and labeled as the county’s Climate Action Plan. But in the analysis conducted during the EIR, the policies and programs will not meet the stated goals and therefore the EIR cannot legally be certified by the county.
In order to meet requirements for certification, the planning commission approved language that changed the goals of the Climate Action Plan policies from achieving certain targets to “working toward” those targets.
“We want Ventura County to be a leader in the state and show how a modern, visionary Climate Action Plan should be written,” stated 350 Ventura County Climate Hub (350 Climate Hub) in a written comment submitted for the July 16 hearing. The organization is made up of Ventura County residents combating climate change, supports the GenPlan mandate for a Climate Emergency Council and suggests it can be tasked with building a CAP that meets all requirements and includes community input. “Much more real, effective community engagement is required, especially including those most impacted. This can be the mandate to the Climate Emergency Council to develop a Climate Action Plan for climate mitigation with an equal emphasis on a realistic visioning for climate adaptation in a process that ensures full community engagement.”
“We request that the county remove policies restricting oil and gas and revise and recirculate the final EIR,” said Ben Oakley with Western States Petroleum Association, an oil and gas lobbying organization. He cited an “inadequate response to public comments” from the county and a “late revision to the final EIR” as reasons the county should delay taking action. He said that the late revision “fundamentally changes the analysis of the role the oil and gas sector plays in meeting the county’s 2030 GHG reduction target,” and that warrants further analysis.
The call for more time for public review was echoed by Louise Lampara, executive director of the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (VC CoLAB), citing “notice and due process violation[s]” that she said showed that the commission’s efforts were “actively thwarting public participation.”
“The county has not even done a cursory economic impact analysis to figure out how these policies will impact jobs, tax revenue and our cost of living,” said Lampara, responding via email on July 20 to the VCReporter. “Our primary concern needs to be the public health response and economic recovery from the COVID pandemic. We are not in the same world that we were a year ago, when these policies were first proposed.”
Ventura County Planning Commissioner Earl McPhail (Dist-3) cast the no vote against the final recommendations, supporting a delay. During final deliberations McPhail, the former Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, attempted to get the setbacks and natural gas ban removed from the document, but the majority of commissioners did not support that position.
Input can be submitted on the General Plan and EIR documents that will be considered by the Board of Supervisors via email to email@example.com.
The meeting video, documents and written public comments are online at: vcrma.org/planning-commission