Pictured: The Ventura Oil Field, operated by Aera Energy on both sides of Ventura Avenue. Google Earth Image from Dec. 2, 2020. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

If a political action committee (PAC) formed by people in Bakersfield and San Rafael is successful in its efforts to collect over 30,000 signatures by Dec. 10, Ventura County voters may get a chance to weigh in on whether recent changes to oil and gas permitting rules stay or go. 

The PAC, called Working Families for Jobs and Energy Independence (WFJEI), is collecting signatures across Ventura County in support of a referendum aimed at challenging action taken by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 10, which amended permitting processes for new oil drilling and related activities. 

An aerial image of a section of the Ventura Oil Field showing the drilling pads and roads used to access oil wells. Google Earth image Dec. 2, 2020.

“We have paid signature gatherers at big box and grocery stores throughout the county,” said Sabrina Lockhart, spokesperson for WFJEI. She explained via email that the group has until Dec. 10 “to submit at least 30,913 valid signatures” to Ventura County Elections. She declined to comment on the group’s progress so far. 

According to California Fair Political Practices Commission forms filed with Ventura County Elections, WFJEI is primarily funded by Aera Energy, a Shell-Exxon corporation that manages the Ventura Oil Field along Ventura Avenue, and California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), a lobbying group for operators in California. The group’s founders listed addresses in Bakersfield and San Rafael. Lockhart is listed on CIPA’s website as its vice president of communications. Aera operates primarily under antiquated oil permits granted decades ago, the type that are most affected by the recent changes to permitting rules. 

WFJEI has not yet filed any financial disclosure forms reporting funds received or spent.

According to Lockhart, if WFJEI is successful in gathering enough valid signatures, the referendum will go before the supervisors and they will have the option of either adopting the referendum, and thus reverse their November action. If they decline to reverse their position, then the certified referendum would be on the ballot in a regularly scheduled election in June 2022. The Supervisors would also have the option  of ordering a special election. Special elections are funded with taxpayer dollars and could cost well over $1 million. (This section was corrected at 10:16 a.m., Thurs. Dec. 3, 2020)

Economic, environmental concerns

The supervisors approved the amendments in a split 3-2 vote, with Board Chair Kelly Long (Dist. 3) and Bob Huber (Dist. 4) voting against the changes. Prior to that, on July 30, the Ventura County Planning Commission voted 4-1 for the changes, with Commissioner W. Earl McPhail (Dist. 3) casting the lone no vote. 

The supervisors received many public comments from individuals and local organizations, both in favor of and in opposition to the changes. 

Saying the changes are not needed because “rigorous systems of oversight are already in place as managed by the state of California and other environmental agencies,” in a letter submitted on Nov. 10, Sandy Smith, chair of the policy committee with the Ventura County Economic Development Association, also pointed to the multiple lawsuits (See “Maximum speed minimum care,” by Kimberly Rivers, Oct. 28, 2020, Ventura County Reporter) related to the county’s new General Plan, saying these changes also demonstrate “a desire to push for adoption without adequate study and analysis. A decision to ignore legal vested rights, previously permitted by county action, will only result in additional legal challenges.”

“The Board of Supervisors’ recent actions simply ban local responsible energy production, exporting quality jobs, vital tax revenue and environmental responsibility to countries who do not share our values,” said Lockhart. 

But some groups are pushing back on that messaging, saying the amendments were needed to level the playing field and bring oil permitting rules up to date in the county. 

“What the county essentially did was close a loophole that allowed some oil companies to skirt modern laws that protect public health, precious water supplies, our public lands and the environment,” said Rebecca August, director of advocacy with Los Padres ForestWatch. “Now all new oil development and operations will be subject to the same rules that other businesses in Ventura County must follow.”

The November action of the supervisors amended the Ventura County Coastal and Non-Coastal Zoning ordinances requiring “new” oil and gas exploration and production in any active oil field in the county, regardless of the type of permit that currently governs operations, to be reviewed in a discretionary process by Ventura County Planning. 

The staff report signed by Dave Ward, director of the Ventura County Planning Department, recommended adoption of the changes but did note that some aspects are inconsistent with aims of the county’s General Plan and noted “the zoning ordinance amendments would slow and/or reduce the potential expansion of certain new local oil and gas development which in turn could negatively impact this economic sector and its employment base.”

“Indefinite expansion without regulation”

Prior to the changes, an oil company with an “antiquated” land use permit (Conditional Use Permit or CUP), issued decades ago, was allowed to drill new oil wells without a modern environmental review by a simple over-the-counter process as a ministerial action. New drilling under permits granted more recently could also use the ministerial process so long as the permit included the proposed wells in the total number of wells allowed by the permit. Ministerial means that if all requirements are met, the county must approve the project; the planning department has no discretion. 

The problem is that many of the old permits do not include basic, standard provisions included in all modern CUPs such as expiration dates and limits on the number of wells that can be drilled without a modification to the permit, which requires discretionary review. This has created a loophole, allowing oil companies to drill new wells without modern environmental review. The ministerial process also does not require any public notice. Other examples of ministerial actions include the issuance of marriage licenses and shade structures. 

“Antiquated permits never expire. They allow for indefinite expansion without regulation. So long as they were allowed, they made Ventura County’s modern oil and gas regulations essentially meaningless,” said Liz Beall, executive director at Climate First! Replace Oil and Gas (CFROG). She explained that the action simply requires  “new drilling and expansion follow modern health and safety standards.” 

Local environmental and climate action organizations like CFROG, Los Padres ForestWatch and Ventura County Climate Hub have been pushing for changes to permitting policies for oil and gas operations in the county for several years. 

The amendments resulted in three major changes in how certain oil drilling projects are reviewed by the Ventura County Planning Department.

First, all new development, including drilling at existing oil fields, will be reviewed through a discretionary process that is subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Many of the old permits were never reviewed under CEQA, although all new drilling was subject to modern regulations through the California Department of Conservation’s division that oversees oil and gas activities in the state. Today that division is called the Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM). 

Second, all modern rules and operational standards will now apply to all oil and gas operations. This means that in some cases more stringent rules will apply and some operators may have to make some changes. But new requirements cannot interfere with any vested right conveyed through their land use permits. 

Third, the changes will limit the extent of new development in oil fields that can be done under a single zoning clearance application, or ministerial process. 

“The oil company that benefited most from these antiquated permits and the biggest driller in our county is Aera Energy,” said Tomás Morales Rebecchi, Central Coast organizing manager with Food and Water Watch. “We are glad Aera will no longer have the ability to drill as many wells as they want with no environmental review.” 

Michele Newell, spokesperson for AERA Energy, did not respond to requests for comment. But during public comment at the Nov. 10 supervisors meeting, she referred to the impact the changes would have on royalty owners who receive funds based on oil extracted locally and how much extractable oil, still in the ground, is worth. Regarding one large royalty owner, The Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, Newell said the contributions the foundation makes in the community would likely decline as a result of reduced royalties that could occur due to the changes in oil permitting rules.  

The county will have 30 days to certify the signatures submitted, so it’s likely the supervisors would not consider the referendum before January 10, 2021, if WFEI collects enough signatures. 

All documents, including the VC Planning Staff report and public comments for the Nov. 10, 2020 supervisors meeting, are online HERE. 

Disclosure: Kimberly Rivers was executive director of CFROG from 2016 to January 2019.