Pictured: Ventura County Supervisors Steve Bennett (Dist. 1) and Linda Parks (Dist.2) at the Ventura County Government Center on July 23, 2019. Photo by Kimberly Rivers

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

New restrictions to oil and gas permitting in Ventura County have taken center stage throughout the four-year process of Ventura County’s General Plan Update. After hundreds of public comments, pages of input, dozens of hours of public meetings and an ending cost of $7.2 million, Ventura County has “tentatively” adopted its 2040 General Plan (GenPlan). 

In a split, 3-2 vote, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved goals, policies and programs that represent a major effort of the county to combat climate change at the local level and create a plan for addressing and mitigating the effects of a warming planet. 

The final document with all approved wording and formatting will be presented to the supervisors for final approval at 3 p.m. on Sept. 15. New policies will take effect 30 days later, according to Jeffrey Barnes, Ventura County Counsel. 

Chair of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, Kelly Long (Dist. 3), July 2019. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

The “new General Plan applies to all project approvals that occur after [the] effective date of [the] new General Plan,” said Barnes via email to the Ventura County Reporter. 

Supervisors Steve Bennett (Dist-1), Linda Parks (Dist-2) and John Zaragoza (Dist-5) voted to adopt the plan, with board chair Kelly Long (Dist-3) and Bob Huber (Dist-4) voting against. 

“It’s a big and important first step after years of caving in to the oil industry,” said John Brooks, an Oak View resident and co-founder and president of Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG). “The setbacks from wells are good but not far enough from homes and children. The fact that flaring and trucking from new wells is prohibited is also good. But we are in a climate crisis and the admitted failure of the Climate Action Plan to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals is a failure to move quickly away from fossil fuels.”

Ventura County Supervisor Bob Huber (Dist. 4), July 2019. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

“We’re celebrating that the county has a Climate Action Plan,” said Jan Dietrick, Ventura chapter leader for Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “It’s disappointing that the emissions reduction goals fell so far short of meeting minimal state goals. However, it’s a relief to have a few pretty strong policies and programs that will help the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”

The plan calls for the county to form a Climate Emergency Council to oversee the implementation of programs and to continue to identify areas for action. 

According to Andrew Martin with Ascent Environmental, the firm hired to lead the completion of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the GenPlan plan includes 119 policies and 45 implementation programs that involve reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

“My family and our two young children live within one mile of hundreds of oil wells on Ventura’s Westside,” said Tomás Morales Rebecchi, a Ventura resident who is the Central Coast organizing manager for Food and Water Action. “We have organized for years to ensure our voices are heard and oil drilling is stopped next to our homes.” 

New policies in the 2040 GenPlan that apply to all new discretionary oil drilling include lengthening the existing 500-foot setback from residences to 1,500 feet and 2,500 feet from any school (COS-7.2), requiring new discretionary oil development to be subject to “current state and county” standards (COS-7.3), a requirement that oil and produced water from new discretionary oil wells be moved via pipeline instead of trucks (COS-7.7), and a total ban on flaring or venting (COS-7.8) except in an emergency or for testing. 

On Oct. 16, the supervisors are slated to vote on requiring new drilling on oil fields governed by old permits to be subject to discretionary review — meaning an end to a rubber stamp process that grandfathered-in oil wells on old environmental standards. 

Representatives of local trade organizations and petroleum industry associations spoke in favor of a delay and in opposition of various policies. 

This is “another bad decision that will [lead to] years of expensive litigation” for the county, said Bruce Carter, senior regulatory advisor for California Resources Corporation (CRC), an oil and gas company that operates just over a quarter of the oil wells in Ventura County. CRC declared bankruptcy earlier this year after providing just under $900,000 to a political action committee (For a Better Ventura County) to successfully re-elect Long to her second term

The county received several letters from law firms representing dozens of mineral rights holders and agricultural land owners opposing the GenPlan.

“Because our production naturally declines we need to drill wells to maintain [our] business,” said Alan Adler, president of ABA Energy, an Oxnard-based oil and gas company, on Sept. 1. He said the  proposed setbacks would “needlessly cause us to remove ag land from production” and he would have to “condemn most of my properties…with no empirical scientific” evidence supporting the setback distance. 

Those in support of the 1,500-foot setback cited two June 2020 studies. One from Stanford University (1) found that incidents of preterm labor were higher for pregnant women living near oil wells while another from University of California, Berkeley (2), indicated proximity to oil wells led to low birth weight. 

The GenPlan creates a program that will study the potential of a 2,500-foot setback for a possible GenPlan amendment by 2022. 

Other new policies include a prohibition on natural gas in new residential and commercial developments and a mandate to consider the impact of proposed development on disadvantaged communities.

The tentative approval came amidst calls from various groups and individuals seeking delay of the approval, stating there was a lack of public outreach and inadequate input from communities of color, namely Latinx communities, in Oxnard and the Santa Clara River Valley, as well as a failure to consider impacts of the pandemic. 

Zaragoza (Dist.-5) pushed back against the assertion that the Latinx community was not involved, citing the meetings held in Spanish and Mixtec in El Rio, Colonia, Nyeland Acres and other areas. 

During the hearing Susan Curtis, GenPlan project manager, noted that a fully translated version of the completed document was not included in the scope of work for the project. It will cost over $100,000 to fully translate the entire package. Curtis said it will cost about $18,000 to translate only the GenPlan elements, including the new programs and policies. The board expressed a desire to allocate the $18,000 promptly. 

Two week delay for final vote

While the final vote was agendized for Sept. 1, it was reset to Sept. 15 after Barnes with Ventura County Counsel recommended the change due to a procedural issue that came to light during the hearing. 

During public comment, David Lazarus, speaking on behalf of Californians for Energy Independence, a lobbying group for the oil industry, supported a delay and cited state code that mandates the complete document be made available “within one working day of adoption.” 

The supervisors made a few minor language changes, and Bennett called for more specific maps to be used in the Ojai Valley Area Plan. Planning staff indicated those changes could not be made in one day and that at least two weeks were needed to ensure the document was “print ready” within one day of the final vote. The complete document, over 2,000 pages, has been available online in separate PDF documents. 

Bennett expressed concern that the process was being “politicized” and that the calls for delay were a part of that effort. Long penned an editorial (3) in the Ventura County Star laying out her support for a delay as the GenPlan does address issues related to the pandemic.

Calls for delay came from several organizations including the Ventura County Economic Development Association (VCEDA) and the Ventura County Coalition for Labor, Agriculture and Business (VC COLAB). 

“The policy implications of this General Plan are far reaching and cannot be fully understood without in-depth analysis,” stated Sandy Smith, chair of the VCEDA policy committee, in an Aug. 31 letter to the supervisors, asking for the vote to be delayed. 

The new plan will govern all land use decisions in the unincorporated areas of the county through 2040. Up to four amendments are allowed annually as needed. 

More information on the 2040 General Plan is online at: https://vc2040.org/review/documents

  1. https://news.stanford.edu/2020/06/09/living-near-oil-gas-wells-may-increase-preterm-birth-risk/
  2. https://news.berkeley.edu/2020/06/03/living-near-oil-and-gas-wells-tied-to-low-birth-weights-in-infants/
  3. https://www.vcstar.com/story/opinion/editorials/2020/08/28/guest-column-general-plan-needs-more-time-consider-covid-19-impacts/5639234002/