Lawsuit Challenges New Oil Drilling Project in Arvin, Kern County

By Dan Bacher | October 3, 2018 | 

Arvin, a small city of 19,304 located in Kern County 15 miles southeast of Bakersfield in the far southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, is a center of growing resistance to the powerful oil industry’s air and water pollution.

On October 1, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) joined the law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP in filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA) to stop Petro-Lud, Inc. from constructing and drilling four new oil wells adjacent to homes within Arvin city limits. Petro-Lud is a full-service drilling and service company operating primarily in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The city, with a 2010 Latino population of 92.7% including many farmworkers, approved the project without conducting the environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), according to the groups.

Kern County features the heaviest concentration of oil drilling operations in California, as well as some of the largest corporate agribusiness corporations in the world, including Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s The Wonderful Company. 

In 2007, the United States Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) listed Arvin as having the highest levels of smog of any community in the U.S., in spite of California’s facade as the nation’s “green leader.”  The city's level of ozone, smog's primary component, exceeded the EPA's acceptable limits an average of 73 days per year between 2004 and 2006 alone.  

The lawsuit filed in the Kern County Superior Court states, “The City found the Project exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (‘CEQA’), Public Resources Code section 21000 et seq., under a “categorical exemption” intended for construction of a single-family home or a small retail establishment—not an intensive industrial activity like oil and gas operations. The City’s approval of the Project was a clear abuse of discretion and should be set aside.”

“Petro-Lud intends to drill next to homes in Arvin as soon as possible, even though the City has not done the required environmental review for this potentially harmful project,” said Chelsea Tu, a senior attorney at CRPE. “Petro-Lud must not be allowed to circumvent California’s environmental law that has been put in place to protect environmental health.”  

Tu said oil and gas drilling and transportation results in air and water contamination, noise, traffic, and other negative environmental impacts. She said these activities can also produce both short and long-term health impacts and diminish the quality of life for nearby residents.

“This Project will likely harm my community for decades to come,” said Estela Escota, president of CBA. “Petro-Lud plans to drill exploratory and production wells for an indefinite period of time, but has no idea how much oil is even under the proposed site. Without knowing this, we have no way of knowing how long the wells will stay active.”

“During this indefinite drilling time, the wells will produce not only oil, a toxic substance, but will also air, water, and soil contaminants before this project is rushed through without understanding the consequences,” she noted. “We are simply asking for a proper environmental impact review.”

As a result of this legal action, CRPE and CBA said they hope that a full environmental impact report can be completed in order to “make sure the health and safety of the residents of Arvin is prioritized by all, especially those who stand to profit."

Shannon Chaffin, Arvin City Attorney, said he hasn't seen the lawsuit yet, so he couldn’t comment on it. 

In July, CRPE and CBA successfully pressured the Arvin City Council to pass an updated oil and gas ordinance  that imposed more restrictions on new oil and gas operations in the city of Arvin.

Regarding the lawsuit, Tu emphasized that “any new oil or gas drilling project should undergo a complete environmental process under CEQA.”

“Instead, the City didn’t even meet bare minimum required under CEQA,” Tu said. “We are hopeful that we will be successful in challenging this oil drilling project — and prevent other projects from being approved without the required review. We want to bring the City into minimum compliance with California environmental law.”  

The four new wells are planned at a time when Governor Jerry Brown’s oil and gas regulators have overseen a big expansion of oil wells in California. Over the past seven years, the Brown administration has approved 21,000 new oil and gas drilling permits in California, including 238 offshore wells in state waters under existing leases in Los Angeles County and Ventura County between 2012 and 2016.  

More than three-quarters of the new oil wells approved during California Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure are in low-income communities and communities of color, according to state data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity:

“The analysis found that 77 percent of the permits for new oil and gas wells issued since Brown took office in 2011 are in communities with a higher-than-average percentage of residents living below twice the poverty line and/or communities with a majority nonwhite population,” the Center said. 

California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) approved 21,397 new wells between Jan. 1, 2011 and April 14, 2018, according to the Center. Of the 16,554 of those wells with available geographic information, 76 percent are located in communities with above-average poverty rates for California, while 67 percent are located in communities of color. 

Despite the state’s  “green” image, the oil industry is the largest corporate lobby in the state and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the trade association for the oil industry, is the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization. If  you want to know the industries, organizations and people that control California, WSPA and Big Oil are right at the top of the list. 

WSPA represents a who’s who of oil companies including oil giants Chevron, Exxon, Occidental Petroleum and many others.  The companies that WSPA represents account for the bulk of petroleum exploration, production, refining, transportation and marketing in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, according to the WSPA website,

WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations. For more information, read my report:…

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