Attorney General Bonta Files Brief in Defense of Ventura County Policies to Protect Communities from Harmful Effects of Oil and Gas Drilling

Oakland CA (9/15/2022) – California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed an amicus brief in defense of Ventura County’s 2040 General Plan, which includes a number of policies to protect the health and safety of communities who live, work, or go to school near oil and gas sites. Ventura County is one of the top oil and gas producing counties in the state, and the majority of its wells are located in or near low-income communities and communities of color. Following Ventura County’s finalization of its 2040 General Plan, a number of labor associations, fossil fuel companies, and industry lobbying groups filed lawsuits against the County. In the brief, the Attorney General argues that Ventura County’s policies provide important protections against the harmful impacts of oil and gas drilling and are not preempted by state law.

“Ventura County is facing nearly a dozen lawsuits for its adoption of commonsense policies that protect the health and safety of its communities,” said Attorney General Bonta“These lawsuits are misguided. Ventura County should be applauded for its 2040 General Plan, not taken to court. For decades, environmental inequities have been perpetuated by local land use policies. We’re glad to see Ventura County try to break the cycle by moving new oil and gas wells away from schools and homes and restricting unnecessary emissions of toxic pollutants. As my office makes clear in our brief, these oil and gas policies do not conflict with state law and are an important example of responsible governance.”

An analysis of oil and gas permitting in California between 2011 and 2018 shows that 76% of new wells were located in communities with higher-than-average poverty levels, and 67% of new permits were issued in communities with majority non-white residents. In Ventura County, more than 8,000 residents live within 2,500 feet of an oil well, and approximately 60% of those residents are Latino.

The public health impacts of oil and gas drilling are well established. Numerous studies link proximity to wells to debilitating health conditions such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease, asthma and respiratory illnesses, several types of cancer, depression, and other mental health outcomes. Two recent studies analyzing the effects of oil and gas drilling in California found a significant association between nearby oil and gas production and adverse birth outcomes.

To address the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling in neighborhoods, in September 2020, Ventura County finalized policies that 1) require a 1,500-foot setback between new wells and residential sites and a 2,500-foot setback for schools; 2) require new wells use pipelines instead of trucks to convey crude oil where feasible; and 3) limit venting and flaring of excess fracked gas produced from new wells except for emergency or testing purposes. Shortly after the 2040 General Plan was finalized, 11 lawsuits were filed against the County with many alleging that state law preempts the three oil and gas policies.

In an amicus brief filed in Ventura County Superior Court, Attorney General Bonta argues that these allegations are incorrect. The California Constitution and a 1976 Attorney General Opinion are clear that local regulation of oil and gas development is not preempted so long as it does not interfere with the state’s regulation of the industry. Ventura County’s regulations concerning oil and gas setbacks, the transportation of crude oil, and restrictions on flaring and venting do not conflict with state law and are therefore not preempted.

The Attorney General’s Bureau of Environmental Justice is committed to fighting environmental injustices across the state and supporting local policies in their land use planning. Last year, the Bureau intervened in support of South Coast Air Quality Management District’s rule requiring warehouses to reduce emissions from heavy sources of on-road pollution that visit those warehouses. The Bureau also announced a settlement with the City of Huntington Park to bring the city into compliance with Senate Bill 1000, a law requiring local governments to address environmental justice in their land use planning. More recently, the Bureau sent a letter to the County of Fresno identifying numerous deficiencies in its draft General Plan and intervened in litigation challenging Moreno Valley’s 2040 General Plan for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act.

A copy of the brief can be found here.