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Oil and Gas Industry Hunkers Down in Kern County. Will the State Apply Any Regulation?

Despite the image of a state government that “believes in the science” of climate change, and Governor Newsom’s presentation as pro-environmental, the administration and state continues to cater to the oil industry. This is especially true in rural Kern County, at the southern end of the Central Valley. Oil’s history in the state goes much further back than any form of environmentalism. 

As early as 1866, corporations began drilling for oil in California. The industry’s long history in the state has established considerable amounts of political power. In the 1920s California led the nation in oil production with wells across LA County and many within the city. Production has declined steadily from the 1980s and now is concentrated in rural, low income and majority Latino Kern County, which produces 70-80% of the state’s oil and gas. 

The industry’s dominance in the county and continued profitability has allowed it to avoid accountability and regulation. Oil and gas activities threaten the health and well-being of the most vulnerable people in the state.  In Kern County, about 300,000 people, ⅓ of the entire county, live within a mile of an oil well, facing great risk for pollution-related health problems. 

The county ranks as one of the most polluted in the nation. In 2019, a Chevron oil spill leaked for 115 days. Because the county is rural and poor, the entire economy depends on the oil and gas industry.  Because of the oil industry’s economic power, and despite rampant community concern on the health effects of drilling, the County Board and electeds regardless of party support the industry. 

On March 9, the County Board unanimously passed a streamlined approval process for new oil and gas wells. Under the new policy, Oil companies that would bypass any rigorous state review by paying fees to the county for rapid drilling permit approval. Experts and the industry both believe this will result in 43,000 oil wells in the next 20 years, over 50% expansion of active wells in the entire state. 

Newsom claims that the state has no authority to stop permitting, but this claim has been thoroughly discredited by the Director of the Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic, Deborah Sivas. Not only does Governor Newsom have the authority to stop drilling, his position on the matter is completely opposite his own stated position on the urgency of climate change.

Instead of standing up to the oil industry the Governor has catered to them, often literally. In 2018, Newsom ran to the left of his democratic opponent in the general election and campaigned on banning fracking and ending dangerous drilling practices. Since taking office, the Governor has failed to stop any new drilling and presided over a series of scandals. Oil regulators in charge of permits, also invested in the same companies they had to regulate. 

After a short moratorium, Newsom quickly began issuing permits for new oil wells. In 2020, he issued 83 permits for fracking. In total his administration has issued 8,129 Permits to allow oil and gas, he claims he opposes. Furthermore, California has no regulation on setbacks between oil wells and spaces where people live, work and play. Newsom has not issued a single rule on setbacks, while 7.37 million Californians live within a mile of oil wells. Proximity to oil wells can lead to chronic health conditions, birth defects and cancer. 

Newsom infamously attended an indoor dinner at the French Laundry for a birthday party of a notorious oil lobbyist, Jason Kinney. Kinney and the governor have a relationship that entwines their families for over 20 years. This ReadsSludge exposé reveals his biggest clients include many companies in the oil and gas sector who have received financially beneficial but environmentally costly decisions from the Governor. The Shell and Exxon joint venture Aera energy produces almost 25% of California’s gas production and paid Kinney’s from over $200,000 in 2019 and 2020. Aera received the first fracking permits in 2020 from Newsom after the moratorium, due to ongoing scandals within the state’s agency tasked with regulating oil and gas. Furthermore, Marathon Energy, a massive Fortune 500 oil company with both wells and refineries across California, gave Kenny’s firm over $500,000 and continues to lobby to not regulate oil and gas. 

Despite the governor’s lack of action, the State Senate may pass actual legislation to enact the will of the voters. Scott Wiener has proposed SB 467, that would ban fracking by 2027 on existing wells and impose setbacks on the location of oil and gas wells. The bill would also help to redeploy oil and gas workers in remediation of oil and gas sites. 

Jackie Fielder, Weiner’s 2020 opponent, also supports the bill. However, passing this bill is a tall order and it’s not clear if Newsom will support it or bow to the industry again. However, with oil production concentrated in Kern county, statewide action is the only way to stand up to the industry. 

Photo Credit: “Gray Industrial Machine during Golden Hour” by Pixabay is licensed under CC0.

Alex is a beat reporter for crime, justice, and the police force throughout the Bay Area. She is not afraid to speak truth to power, and believes that the best disinfectant is light. In her experience, this statement is never more true than when watching the sun rise after a long night of writing.

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