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    Ventura County Votes to Update Antiquated Laws Around Oil Permitting

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    By Tomás Morales Rebecchi

    Ventura — On Thursday, the Ventura County Planning Commission voted 4-1 to update the Zoning Ordinance for oil and gas wells operating under antiquated permits. Thousands of oil wells in Ventura County operate under “antiquated permits” that were issued up to 75 years ago—before environmental and human health impacts were known, and long before many bedrock environmental laws existed. Many of these wells are located within or adjacent to the Los Padres National Forest. Others are dangerously close to communities like Ventura, Oxnard and Fillmore. Community members and environmental and climate justice organizations gave public comment asking for updated oil permitting to better protect the health and safety of the community, the climate, and public lands. 

    Rebecca August, Director of Advocacy with Los Padres Forest Watch stated, “Oil companies should not be allowed to drill an unlimited number of wells, for an unlimited amount of time, and without thorough evaluation of potential impacts to public health and the environment. All new wells in Ventura County should abide by the same modern environmental standards that other businesses in Ventura County must follow.”

    Last fall, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors directed County staff to update the County’s oil drilling ordinances so that any new wells under these antiquated permits will be subject to greater transparency and environmental review.

    Under current rules, 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. 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 allowed. Other ministerial actions include marriage licenses and backyard gazebos.

    Most antiquated permitshave no limit on the number of wells that can be drilled, have no expiration date, and do not stipulate what drilling techniques can be used. Also under antiquated permits, new wells are approved without public notice or hearing and have never undergone environmental review.

    In response to the vote Tomás Rebecchi, Central Coast Organizing Manager with Food & Water Action said, “This is a huge victory for communities living near oil and gas production. Before this update, oil companies could avoid all current environmental laws and reviews by checking a few boxes and paying a small fee. We know so much more about the environmental and health risks of oil production than we knew 75 years ago, or even 2 years ago.” Rebecchi pointed to numerous studies including two released last month by Berkeley and Stanford showing the impacts of living near oil wells, including asthma, cancer and preterm births. 

    “Now the true cost to public health and our resources will be evaluated when approving oil wells. Any new analysis will show that we should not drill any new wells given what we now know about climate change and the health impacts on the communities near these wells,” said Rebecchi.

    This update will only apply to new wells, despite comments from many in favor of the oil industry claiming it will shut the industry down. Commissioner King mentioned in his final remarks that “I don’t see any evidence that this will be capping existing wells.”

    Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas (CFROG) President John Brooks said, “Equal protection under the law means all of us should be treated the same. No special treatment for oil permits.”

    Environmental groups including CFROG and Los Padres Forest Watch have been raising concerns about these loopholes for years and feel gratified by the Planning Commission final vote. “We applaud the planning commission for taking action to protect Ventura County from the harmful impacts that under-regulated oil development would have on public health, precious water resources, public lands, and the environment” said August.

    It will now go to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for a final vote in the coming months.

    Tomás Morales Rebecchi is theCentral Coast Organizing Manager for Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action

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