Jan 07, 2021

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors recently passed controversial changes to the region’s zoning and permitting laws that, if allowed to stand, would strip decision-making responsibilities away from state and federal agency experts and qualified personnel in the County’s Planning Division. Instead, the Board would have the exclusive right to approve and deny certain land use permits at will.

The changes will add unnecessary red tape, delays, partisanship, and legal challenges to a well-functioning permitting system for existing and safe energy operations in Ventura County. The ploy is part of a systematic effort aiming to shut down local energy production which would kill thousands of jobs, devastate working families, and eliminate tens of millions in local tax revenues in the middle of an economic crisis.

While voters have organized against these zoning and permitting changes, radical energy activists like Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) and Food & Water Watch are doing what they do best – supporting bad policy with false and misleading claims.

Here are the ways radicals get it wrong on the zoning power grab in Ventura County:

CLAIM:  “Thousands of oil wells in Ventura County operate under antiquated permits that were issued before environmental and human health impacts were known, and long before bedrock environmental laws existed.”

REALITY:  While it is true that some permits were issued a number of years ago, the age of the permit does not exempt production operations from current environmental, public health, or safety laws. Oil and gas in California is produced under the most stringent regulations in the world, and more than 25 agencies have oversight responsibilities for every step of the production process.

CLAIM:  “What the County essentially did was close a loophole that allowed some oil companies to skirt modern laws.”

REALITY:  This is nonsense. Laws protecting public health and the environment have always applied to all energy production operations in Ventura County. The County did not close any “loopholes” and no oil companies were ever allowed to “skirt modern laws.”

In actuality, more than 25 state and federal agencies, including the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), thoroughly regulate all oil and gas activities and ensure that all environmental, public health, and safety laws are followed. The Board of Supervisors is interfering where it lacks expertise and appropriate regulatory oversight and is trying to improperly strip CalGEM of its regulatory authority.

CLAIM:  “Under current rules governing antiquated permits, an oil company only needs to submit a short application along with a $330 permit fee to receive a zoning clearance to drill or frack a well in Ventura County.”

REALITY:  This is a wildly misleading oversimplification of the permitting process. Drilling or stimulating a well requires submittal of a highly detailed, and well documented application to CalGEM. The CalGEM permitting process requires submitting detailed, scientifically sound, fact-based descriptions and assessments of the proposed drilling or stimulation activity. Multiple layers of agency review by qualified engineering or geoscience professionals ensures operations meet or exceed regulations to protect the environment, public health, and worker safety.

CLAIM: “Under antiquated permits, new wells are approved that have never undergone environmental review.”

REALITY:  This is patently false. Environmental review happens throughout the life of any oil and gas operation. For example, production operations in Ventura County require the following:

  • drilling permits from CalGEM;
  • biological protocol surveys from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife;
  • stormwater permits from the Regional Water Quality Control Board;
  • air pollution control permits from the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District;
  • electrical permits from the Ventura County Resource Management Agency;
  • zoning clearances from the Ventura County Planning Division;
  • and grading permits from Ventura County Public Works.

Notably, Ventura County’s Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance also regulates wells through a number of standardized requirements, such as setbacks and scenic view protection standards to name a few.

CLAIM: “Most antiquated permits have no limit on the number of wells that can be drilled, have no expiration date, and do not stipulate what extraction techniques can be used.”

REALITY:  The permits do not have limits on the numbers of wells that can be drilled because that is not the responsibility of the County’s Planning Division. Subsurface operations such as location, well construction, number of wells, and extraction techniques are regulated and overseen by CalGEM, which authorizes and sets specific conditions on all drilling in the state.

CLAIM:  “A zoning clearance process is considered ministerial, in that if the applicant checks all the boxes and pays the fee, the county must approve it, no discretion is allowed. Other ministerial actions include marriage licenses and backyard gazebos.” … “The new ordinance simply requires oil & gas companies to go through the same kind of permit review process that daycares, restaurants, wineries, film productions – and countless others – do to get their permits.”

REALITY:  Again, the activists making these claims are choosing to ignore and intentionally failing to disclose the fact that a robust and comprehensive state review and permitting process exists. The zoning clearance is just one of many processes operators must undertake. Characterizing the zoning clearance process as the only process undertaken is misleading and simply untrue. Again, CalGEM is the state agency expressly tasked with regulating oil and gas operations, and CalGEM’s permitting processes ensure that drilling operations conform with regulations to protect the environment, public health, and worker safety.

For example, a recently approved zoning clearance request submitted by a local producer was 189 pages and included a full biological report for two new wells on an existing pad. This approval took more than a year to obtain at the cost of over $12,000.

CLAIM:  If the challenge qualifies as a referendum, it will force a special election which would cost taxpayer money to run.

REALITY:  This is false. Any measure that qualifies as a referendum appears on the next county-wide ballot. The Board of Supervisors would have the option to call a special election for voters to consider the referenda immediately, but this is not required.