A conflict between farmers and some oil/natural gas exploration and production (E&P) companies has erupted in Kern County in the southern end of California’s central valley where the agriculture and energy industries have coexisted for many decades.

The farmers are alleging that state oil/gas regulators are shirking their responsibility to require more environmental review and mitigation before allowing new E&P drilling. One farmer has sued independent E&P Colorado-based Venoco Inc., alleging that it does not have full environmental permitting to drill on his 38-acre farm.

Industry officials said the conflict is being overstated in the news media because only a small group of farmers is raising a fuss. The Kern County Farm Bureau, for example, does not share the views of the protesting farmers, according to Tupper Hull, spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA).

In a front page article in Monday’s Los Angeles Times outlining a “battle” in Kern County, spokespeople for the state Conservation Department’s oil/gas division, argued that there is a need from some exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process, and in each instance, the appropriateness of granting exemptions is weighed on a case-by-case basis.

The CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, Rock Zierman, told NGI the LA Times report had “many errors.”

The agriculture-energy industry surface-vs.-mineral rights debate is “an issue that has been around 100 years in Kern County and that oil companies are very sensitive to,” Hull said. “There are a lot of protections built into the law for all parties and a lot of mechanisms in place to resolve disputes.”

Regarding CEQA and how it is being applied to oil and gas production, Hull said the industry recognizes this is an issue that “needs some study, and we are working with the state and other stakeholders to do just that.”

In the meantime, some individual farmers have hired lawyers and begun to oppose the recent granting of 16 exemptions to CEQA for drilling in Kern County since Gov. Jerry Brown last year replaced two state oil/gas supervisors (see Daily GPI, Nov. 10, 2011). The farmers are now pressuring the Kern County Board of Supervisors to consider taking control of environmental reviews on drilling projects, something the county has historically left to the state to do.

While not wishing to appear to choose sides, the county board in November said it would take over review of oil projects in the county. The board directed it staff to develop a report on the issue by its Dec. 11 meeting.

“In the past, Kern County declared itself to be primarily a drill-by-right county, with few restrictions on the location of oil and gas wells,” said a spokesperson for the state oil/gas division. “For the most part, the county does not issue any type of permit in connection with drilling oil and gas wells within its jurisdiction.”

California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) issues drilling permits. When the division has acted as lead agency for drilling permits, it has in some, but not all, instances issued categorical exemptions from CEQA. In 2012, the division has issued 14 categorical exemptions, the spokesperson said.

“These have typically been for drilling permits for wells on land already dedicated to, and/or designated for, oil and gas activities. DOGGR is aware that agricultural land owners have expressed concerns regarding the application of categorical exemptions, and it is currently re-examining the application of this exemption.”

Four farmers wrote a recent letter to state officials alleging through their attorney that CEQA requirements were being “institutionally disregarded” on a regular basis.

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