Oil Industry in Kern County Resists Limitations on Fracking

By Ronald Martin

The Kern County Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on Jan. 14 with the staff of a new agency, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM, which replaces DOGGR, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources), and the Department of Conservation was not what environmentalists expected. There was no alternation of public comments left and right until well after most of the Fresno attendees had left. Despite delaying their departure, when the Fresnans left, the BOS was starting another round of oil industry speakers.

The supervisors explained that Kern County is suffering from the winding down of its oil industries as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new agency, CalGEM, is approving fewer drilling permits than DOGGR did, the county is about to experience a budgetary crash as devalued oil lands are reassessed at lower values, thereby resulting in less tax revenue, and the loss of thousands of above-average jobs.

This is while the rest of the state burns increasing amounts of gasoline, most of it being from oil from Saudi Arabia, Colombia and a dozen other nations, brought here in supertankers, which release increasing amounts of pollution in the Port of Los Angeles. The BOS believes that it is making sacrifices not being shared by the rest of California.

At one point as the crowd filled the aisles, the audience was told that statements from the community would come later in the meeting, but a few minutes afterward the Fresnans had to leave for their train. There would not have been many environmental speakers anyway, with about 600 oil industry people attending and perhaps 30 environmentalists, although some environmentalists did get to speak.

The BOS meeting was primarily to hear from CalGEM and other state staff as BOS members objected to the reduction in the number of drilling and fracking permits that CalGEM is approving in the Newsom administration. Their statements showed that they have thought through the objections to Kern’s oil industry and have prepared thoughtful responses to challenge the current environmental position.

After the hearing began at 2:10 p.m., there was an hour and a half of statements from various oil industry people plus the Kern County tax assessor, each speaking 3–7 minutes about the Kern County oil industry, its good jobs and good income for county government, and why the state government should not try to wind it down.

Four CalGEM staff made short statements, speaking about grants for solar energy and job programs to benefit Kern County, bringing about the governor’s climate change program and the agency’s mandate to work against climate change as directed by AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

Four of the five supervisors made presentations and addressed pointed questions to CalGEM staff regarding the supervisors’ objection to the increased rejection of drilling permits.

Then three representatives from the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), including Genevieve Gale, presented reports.

By this time, it was 5:30 p.m., and the hearing continued for another three hours.

The oil industry speakers started with the county assessor-recorder, Jon Lifquist, who read figures on the reassessment of Kern oil properties, with their value going down. Several speakers mentioned the many good jobs that the oil industry provides, with one speaker noting that those jobs have an average annual income of $81,000. (No one said how this average might be skewed by executive salaries and bonuses.)

Another speaker addressed Berry Oil’s stock losing 40% of its value during the Newsom regime, which reflects what is happening to Kern County’s economy generally. Several speakers spoke of the hypocrisy of suppressing Kern’s oil industry while California’s oil refineries are replacing all their oil with imported oil.

“This morning, Californians bought one and a half million gallons of gasoline, and tomorrow they’ll buy another million and a half,” added one speaker. “Why can’t this be supplied with Kern County oil?”

Another speaker said that the imported oil is more carbon-intensive than Kern oil because more oil must be expended to power the supertankers bringing it in. Another commented that a great source of air pollution is the Port of Los Angeles, largely due to the many supertankers and the operations to empty their cargo.

One speaker said that people in the community of Lost Hills had reported dangerous levels of air and water pollution from oil operations, but studies involving many samples showed that the toxins there are below acceptable levels.

The supervisors had longer presentations directed to the CalGEM staff. The CalGem staff seemed to be caught flat-footed, not having convincing responses to accusations of hypocrisy.

First, Supervisor Zack Scrivner stated that the governor’s ear has been captured by “environmental extremists” and that he wants the governor to hear another point of view. He said that Kern County’s oil operations are regulated to be the most careful and cleanest operations in the world, and that the nations that would replace Kern oil have dirty operations and repressive governments that our oil purchases support.

Scrivner showed slides of a beheading and beheaded bodies hanging from two cranes (with the victims’ heads blocked out) while a crowd looked on, and demonstrators being beaten by police, in Saudi Arabia. He asked why we support these regimes.

He showed slides of a river in Colombia that is totally black with spilled oil. He said that Kern County has been a leader in both solar and wind energy, with the state’s first wind power array in the Tehachapis, and produces and stores more alternative energy than any other county.

A slide was shown of the sources of California’s oil consumption during the past few decades, starting with California mainly consuming California oil with small amounts from Alaska and foreign sources. Through the years, use of California and Alaskan oil has trended down with foreign oil dominating the present-day display on the slide.

He asked why we should buy foreign oil when we have good, more cleanly pumped California oil. He also had a pie chart showing California’s oil consumption in about a dozen slices, labeled with the countries of origin with their percentages.

He challenged CalGEM saying that with both their development of alternative energy and maintenance of clean oil operations, the state government should be following Kern’s leadership rather than telling Kern what to do.

Supervisor David Couch emphasized that he was not seeking controversy but that “we want to work with you [CalGEM].” After a catcall from a woman in the audience, Couch reprimanded her saying that it was not that kind of meeting, that they were there to “cooperate with and work with these people.”

“Tell me, who can we talk to,” asked Couch, “and what evidence can we find and present to him [Governor Newsom] that will get these permits flowing again?” He persisted, saying that Kern County really needs the permits this year or it will experience a collapse of government operations from which the county might not recover due to the lack of tax revenue, insufficient funding for hospitals and emergency rooms, and not enough resources to keep police on the job.

“Your issue is climate change, but it’s not mine,” said Supervisor Mick Gleason. “I’m concerned about national defense. Kern has two bases and manufacturing facilities that are important to the national defense.” (Perhaps oil income is needed for infrastructure maintenance.)

After the supervisors’ presentations, the CRPE was recognized. The first speaker had slides of a pump jack behind a school and warned of oil wells near schools and houses. She included a slide of a family walking, all wearing masks to filter their air.

Another speaker told of the impact that oil pollution has had on Kern County’s poorest residents. Gale offered detail on the county’s air pollution, including harmful levels of PM 2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 mm in diameter and smaller), PM 10 and other aerial toxins.

Kern’s leadership is asking the community to accept the fact that transitioning away from fossil fuels will involve sacrifice from everyone. Unfortunately, more sacrifice is required of some than of others.

The Kern County oil industry should begin winding down, but it must be done fairly, while reducing gasoline use by the entire state. The governor could restrict and end gasoline use by restricting oil imports or limiting what refineries could refine. Doing this, oil companies would profit from the increasing cost of gasoline. Or gasoline use could be restricted by taxing oil. Doing this, the state government would profit from the increasing cost of gasoline.

Kern County is asking that its residents are not the only ones making sacrifices for life on the planet. By whatever policies, we need to show Kern County that all Californians are making sacrifices, too. Without moving in that direction, we essentially are pushing sacrifices off onto Colombia, Saudi Arabia and other oil-polluted and repressive places—and Kern residents.


Ronald Martin is the president of Fresnans against Fracking and a member of the Energy Committee of the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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