CASE STUDY:  Committee  for a Better Arvin — Oil and Gas Ordinance

oil-well-in-field-shutterstockIn 2018, community leaders in Arvin pressured  city officials to pass an unprecedented, health- protective oil and gas ordinance, and used the  California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in  litigation to protect residents from four new oil and  gas wells. Twenty miles southeast of Bakersfield,  Arvin lies directly over an oil field in Kern County,  where the oil and gas industry exerts immense  political power. More than 80,000 wells exist in  Kern County. In Arvin, a dozen oil and gas wells are  already operating next to homes and schools. Due  in part to local oil and gas drilling, Arvin residents  are exposed to ozone and particulate matter at  concentrations higher than 94 to 98 percent of the  rest of the state. Many residents suffer from severe  asthma, allergies, cancer, and other illnesses.

In 2014, the Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA)  and the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment  (CRPE) decided to take action to protect Arvin  families from further oil and gas pollution. Over the  course of four years, CBA members collected more  than 2,600 petitions and spoke to city officials  to advocate for modernizing the city’s oil and gas  ordinance. Finally, they convinced the Arvin City  Council to pass a new oil and gas ordinance on  July 17, 2018, that creates a 300-foot setback  between wells and residences, provides additional  monitoring and reporting requirements, and  significantly increases permitting fees. [72]

Unfortunately, during the same time, the city also  approved Petro-Lud Inc.’s application to drill four  oil and gas wells in the middle of a residential  neighborhood without any review under CEQA.  Represented by CRPE and Shute, Mihaly &  Weinberger, CBA filed a lawsuit challenging the  city’s approval with the Kern County Superior Court.

Despite dozens of community members’  testimonies on the severe health impacts that can  result from these oil and gas wells—and despite  the finding in Arvin’s newest oil and gas ordinance  that all oil and gas operations can significantly   impact the city’s air, water, and soil, and are  “incompatible with residential uses”—the city of  Arvin approved Petro-Lud’s project by finding it  “exempt” from CEQA under the “small structures”  exemption. This exemption, however, is reserved  for the construction of single-family homes, small  shops, and similar projects that do not typically  cause significant environmental harm.

Fortunately,  the Court decided the case in favor of CBA, concluding that CEQA’s small structures exemption could not be stretched to include Petro-Lud’s oil and gas project, reasoning that “[oil] and gas  exploration and production are intensive industrial operations with a reasonably possible potential  for significant adverse environmental effects.”  The Court’s decision sends a clear message to  local governments and to the oil industry that  environmental impacts caused by oil and gas  projects cannot be masked by improper reliance on  a CEQA exemption.

Just as the new oil and gas ordinance is a remarkable demonstration of a community-driven,  health protective land use policy, the litigation underscores that CEQA is one of the few and  most critical tools EJ communities have to protect polluted families from harmful projects. It also  underscores how much EJ communities have to work in order to succeed: Just when they think that they  are making progress, they often find that they must  begin fighting the next battle. As Estela Escoto,  president of Committee for a Better Arvin, says: “Para nosotros, el haber detenido la construcción de  los cuatro pozos es un gran logro para CBA, y vamos  a seguir adelante luchando por nuestra comunidad.”  (“For us, having stopped the construction of the four wells is a big victory for CBA, and we will continue  fighting for our community.”)

“For us, having stopped the construction of the four wells is a big victory for CBA, and we will continue  fighting for our community.”

Endnotes are numbered as in the full report:

Arvin, California, City Council Ordinance § 451 Text Amendment § 2017-04, An Oil and Gas Ordinance for the Regulation of Petroleum Facilities and Operations, 9 and 55;