“We are very proud of our oil industry and our contribution to national security,” said Dave Noerr, mayor of Taft, a city of 9,400 people in the southwestern foothills. “We are just a bunch of good old, hardworking and loving boys from America.”
These moves make the latest actions by county officials even more remarkable. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a decree in March that is likely to significantly accelerate drilling – with up to 40,000 new oil and gas wells in Kern in mid-2030. Its language, developed in consultation with industry, includes an environmental impact statement that will make it easier for companies to obtain drilling licenses.
“We all realize that change is inevitable. New technologies and innovations will eventually change the way we produce and consume energy in the future, ”said President Phillip Peters, whose family has deep roots in oil, just before the vote. “But as we look at that, I don’t think we can ignore the present. The world still works with Kern oil. “
The result, after a nine-hour hearing that was one of the longest in the council’s history, is a window on what is at stake as communities and states try to abandon fossil fuels to slow climate change.
In Kern, it raises questions of land use and groundwater, further pitting the oil and gas industry against the equally important agricultural sector. For the region’s large Hispanic community – families who live or work near open wells – this puts their health even more at risk.
“The reality is that we are so scared,” said Estela Escoto on Tuesday through an interpreter. “Everything that the oil industry and the gas industry dumped into our communities are just bad things.”
On a hot afternoon, residents can barely see the Sierra Nevada mountains that line the valley to the east because of dense pollution. Drilled wells release greenhouse gas emissions that are the main contributors to climate change and respiratory problems. The closer you are to the source, studies show, the greater the risk.
In 2020, Kern was ranked the worst U.S. county in particle pollution year-round by the American Lung Association’s annual report. A high proportion of Kern’s “disadvantaged community” lives close to sources of emissions, such as extraction, distribution and refining, according to state data.
When Scotus and her husband moved from Los Angeles to the small town of Arvin, which is southeast of Bakersfield, it was to buy her “dream” retirement home. But it wasn’t long before they were both dealing with extreme allergies all year round. Scotus’ throat itched so much that she dreamed of reaching for it.
“We went to the doctor and he said, ‘Do you live in Arvin? Well, I recommend moving, because it is one of the most polluted communities’ ”, recalled Escoto. “At first we laughed, then we got angry.”
She now heads the Committee for a Better Arvin, a local environmental justice group that was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that struggles with the original environmental impact assessment needed for the proposed wells. The result forced the county to demand greater reduction in pollution by companies. Some of the same plaintiffs are now contesting the supervisors’ last vote, which they believe was motivated by the tax dollars and jobs that the new wells represent.
“We feel neglected. We feel that they are not taking us seriously, ”said Escoto of the board, who she said had ignored a request to provide meeting materials on the ordinance in Spanish. “And they decided to come and place an ordinance that would allow thousands of oil wells over a period of 15 years. … This completely leaves aside our suffering, our struggles. “
The fossil fuel industry has strong ties to Kern. The cities are named “Oildale” and “Oil City”. The American Petroleum Institute adopts its highways. ONE program which allows local high school students to take math, science or engineering classes for free at California State University Bakersfield is funded and named after Chevron. The oil and gas industry also pays more than $ 197 million in annual property taxes, money that helps pay teachers, police and firefighters. This did not go unnoticed by the residents.
“People don’t fully understand, not just the contributions that come from oil and gas, but the need for that,” said Noerr, “especially in the state of California.”
The county has more than 47,000 active wells and more than 25,000 idle wells, according to data from the California Geological Energy Management Division. They are easily visible from the roads. Many are just hundreds of meters from homes, schools and farms.
Farmers worry about what lies ahead and how their land – which produces an abundance of almonds, grapes and pistachios – will be affected in the long run. They note its importance for the county, with agriculture being a vital economic force in Kern. Almost 6 percent of jobs are in the extraction or construction industries, according to the Secretariat of Labor Statistics. Jobs in agriculture, fisheries and forestry make up 13%.
“My immediate concern is how they treat our surface, how much area they take from agriculture,” said almond farmer Keith Gardiner, who owns and operates more than 20,000 acres, in addition to an agricultural management company in Kern. He says he “lost millions” in revenue due to the contamination of groundwater over the years.
The oil and agricultural industries in the area have always run parallel to each other, but tensions have increased. Kern County is one of the few parts of California that allows for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock under high pressure to facilitate the extraction of oil or natural gas.
“In the beginning, there was not much drilling in our main agricultural areas. It was always on the sidelines, ”recalled Gardiner. “But as these reserves were explored and fracking became very widespread, they found out how to fracture this shale … So, there started to be more controversy.”
He and other farmers fear that more wells mean a greater likelihood that salt water will seep into clean water tables. There is also a concern that idle or orphaned uncovered wells, for which no one assumes legal or financial responsibility, will only increase in number. Methane emissions from such locations are significant at the national level.
State regulations may soon change the dynamics and place new pressures on local leaders. A comprehensive bill that would prohibit fracturing across the state and hinder other oil extraction techniques is being passed in the legislature. If approved, it will stop operating wells less than 2,500 feet from schools and homes, a provision announced by environmental groups and denounced by officials in the oil and gas sector.
“We would be out of the market,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Association. The project “would completely shut down our entire industry”.
Kern’s supervisors think the legislative move is out of step with reality, given California’s continued dependence on fossil fuels. They know that their county has a lot at stake.
“We have jobs. We have tax revenue. The amount of money that goes into our local economy is incredible, ”said supervisor Zack Scrivner at last month’s board meeting. “This notion that if we just stop producing oil in Kern County, we will fix global warming, this is ridiculous, because it is being pumped out of the ground around the world and being brought here in tankers and stopped at ports.”