In 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. 
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; http://www.arvin.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Ordinance-No.-451-Text-Amendment-No.-2017-04-An-Oiland-Gas-Ordinance-for-Regulation-of-Petroleum-Facilitiesand-Operations.pdf.