CFROG Wins! Ventura County oil and gas project approval violated local and state laws.
Ventura County Superior Court judge, Hon. Glen M. Reiser not only criticized the majority vote of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for sidestepping analysis and mitigation in the name of expediency in an Upper Ojai Valley oil and gas project, he also held Ventura County planning staff responsible for misrepresenting facts and stated staff showed a deep seated feeling of dislike to the concerns of local residents.
Citizens For Responsible Oil & Gas (CFROG) filed legal action in 2016 against Ventura County because the planning department, and ultimately the Board of Supervisors - in a three to two vote - approved a project adding three new wells and allowing oil tanker trucks to use a narrow rural road and bridge in the Upper Ojai Valley. CFROG knew the county violated policies of the Ojai Valley Area Plan, part of the county General Plan, that mandate any project that will emit over 5 lbs. per day of particular air toxins be found to have a “significant” impact thus triggering a more in-depth environmental review. And the county had failed to explain why with increased and faster traffic, and more trucks servicing more oil and gas wells in the area resulted in a safer intersection today, whereas in the 70’s the county prohibited oil tanker trucks from using Koenigstein Road because they deemed it unsafe.
Here is a video prepared by county staff showing an oil tanker truck turning onto the road.
In his Nov. 14 ruling in favor of CFROG, Reiser ordered the county to “set aside” the project approval and prepare a “revised” environmental study “consistent with” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the entire ruling. This means the county must include an analysis of the significant air quality and traffic impacts and alternatives and methods to reduce the impacts for the expansion of the Agnew Lease.
This decision will have powerful ripple effects for all oil and gas permit modifications and renewals in Ventura County and it calls into question the legality of several aspects of how the county planning department processes oil and gas permits.
Over the past four years CFROG has repeatedly told officials that cutting corners by not doing more extensive impact studies to appease the oil and gas industry could endanger the public health and is against the law. With this decision CFROG’s position has the backing of an impartial jurist who spells out the ways staff incorrectly interpreted the law and led the majority of Supervisors down a path that violated state law and adopted county land use polices. By approving this project as presented by planning staff, the court found the Board failed in its CEQA duty to “fully inform the public as to the environmental impacts of proposed projects and, where significant public health and safety issues are implicated, to properly consider project mitigation and alternatives.”
- “The county’s claimed exemption of all oil and gas project emissions from CEQA air quality impact analysis contravenes state law.”
- “Good fortune is not sufficient substantial evidence to convert a significant environmental traffic safety impact into an insignificant one.” In this finding the judge rejects the planning staffs' constant contention that the absence of traffic accidents involving oil tanker trucks is a determinant factor of traffic safety.
- The Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) must be revised to analyze significant air quality and traffic safety impacts, including appropriate project mitigation and alternatives.
Other highlights of the court order:
•State environmental law does not allow planners to bypass the lower air quality threshold for the Ojai Valley.
•The Ventura County Planning Department ignored warnings from Cal Trans about oil tanker danger at the Highway 150 / Koenigstein Road intersection and relied on the testimony of a geologist rather than a traffic safety engineer to falsely claim the road was now safe.
• That same geologist, the now retired county planning manager is rebuked by the judge for misrepresenting facts in his own files concerning whether complaints had been filed and for using overly simplistic analysis on air emissions. In fact, the order found that one method used by county staff to persuade the Supervisors to approve the project over CFROG’s appeal is a “drop in the bucket’ argument…is an impact minimization tactic expressly disapproved by the Second Appellate District, Division Six.”
•The judge quotes extensively CFROG advisory board member Dr. Steve Colomé PhD, who points out the fallacy that direct air quality impacts to Ojai can be reduced by steps taken elsewhere in Ventura County.
CFROG is proud of our Executive Director Kimberly Rivers, our Board of Directors, volunteers and our attorneys Michelle Black and Amy Minteer of Chatten, Brown & Carstens.
Going to court is our last resort. Hopefully now decision makers will listen respectfully to our scientific and legally based arguments when presented during the public comment phase prior to initial approval.