‘Kern runs on oil’: as California confronts climate crisis, one county is ready to drill

Kern county has approved the drilling of thousands of new wells despite opposition from farmers and activists

kern county, which sprawls more than 8,000 square miles, connecting the Sierra Nevada slopes and the Mojave Desert to the counties on the Central Coast, is the oil capital of California. The county produces about 70% of the state’s oil and more than 90% of its natural gas – and it has plans to ramp up production.

This week the county approved an ordinance that would allow thousands of new wells to be drilled over the next 15 years. The decision comes despite deep opposition from local farmers and environmental groups, and it puts the county directly at odds with a state that has branded itself as a trailblazer on climate and set ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In doing so, Kern has become a microcosm of a debate happening across America – and around the world – about how to tackle the climate crisis in communities that are built on fossil fuels.

“Kern county runs on oil,” as the county chairman, Phillip Peters, concisely puts it.

The debate has been going on for years, according to Ethan Elkind, a director at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. “What you are seeing here is the main oil and gas producing county in California is going one direction and the state is trying to go a different direction,” he explains, “and it’s so far unwilling to override the county on the issue of local oil and gas production.”

It’s a complicated problem. Kern is also a leader in renewable energy production, accounting for roughly 25% of California’s supply, but officials argue there is not yet enough revenue from the new industries. For Kern, a county where nearly 20% live below the poverty line, expanding oil production means expanding the budget.

“This is a fiscal imbalance that has to be resolved before you start talking about a just transition,” said Lorelei Oviatt, the director of the Kern county planning and natural resources department, during Monday’s vote to approve the new ordinance. “We are looking at the difference between $1.5m a year and $80m a year. Until that is resolved, the idea of banning fossil fuel extraction does not seem realistic.”

Roughly one in seven workers in Kern are employed by the industry or tied to it. A county analysis done last year found that the oil and gas industry funded the county to the tune of almost $200m a year. Roughly half of that, $103m, went to Kern county schools.

Health and environmental concerns

The question over Kern county’s future came to a head on Monday at a community meeting before the county’s vote on the new drilling plans. Hundreds of people from the community and across California called in to speak. Mike Maggard, a county supervisor, called it the “longest public hearing on a single issue” he had seen in his long career.

Farmers voiced concerns about how the land, water, and air would be affected, while justice advocates highlighted how increased pollution would take the harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Others shared their stories about how the oil industry had given them job opportunities that changed their lives.

After a meeting that stretched across nearly 11 hours, it took the county board of supervisors minutes to vote unanimously to approve the new ordinance.

The ordinance, a scaled-back version of one that originally passed in 2015 but was struck down after an environmental review, will allow for roughly 40,000 wells to be permitted through 2034. It also requires producers to take steps to soften their impact on the environment, including paying into funds to help mitigate some of the negative impacts.

Last year, in an attempt to reign in growing emissions from transportation, Newsom issued an executive order requiring all new passenger vehicles sold in the state after 2035 to be zero-emission, calling it the “most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change”.

Melissa Hurtado, a state senator whose district covers parts of Kern county, agrees that more needs to be done. “Our climate change policies and goals have not been working; instead they have created inequities in our most vulnerable communities,” she says. “The truth is climate change is here and we are in desperate need of a new vision on how to tackle the challenges of today, but also the challenges of tomorrow.”

Elkind, from the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, says he would like to see the state plan for a more interventionist approach in places like Kern county.

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