Two Dirty Secrets

Two Dirty Secrets
Steam-injection facilities in Kern County. Photo by Tom Frantz

By Tom Frantz

Governor Gavin Newsom has made it clear that his administration intends “to manage the decline in fossil fuel production and consumption in California in a way that is economically responsible and sustainable, improves public health and safety, and protects the environment. This is in line with the state’s overall climate goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.”

To put action behind Newsom’s words, the state is looking at changing some of the rules in California oil fields and has the following steps in progress. 

  • Surface expressions have been banned. This is where oil seeps out of the ground due to nearby steam injection.
  • New permits for fracking will be reviewed independently by scientists for safety issues.
  • New high-pressure steam injection permits have been halted pending further studies.
  • A consideration will be made of larger buffer zones or setbacks between oil activity and neighborhoods.

These actions have naturally pissed off the oil companies. They recently used their money and influence to rally Kern County politicians and oil field workers to mount a strong protest.

A meeting was held on Jan. 14 by the Kern County Board of Supervisors with state officials present. It was attended by around 1,000 people associated with the local oil industry and a couple of dozen residents, including myself, who actually believe global warming presents a threat to human existence and that rapidly ending fossil fuel use is the only viable solution.

For more than six hours, we suffered through a series of presentations orchestrated by the oil industry. Repeatedly, we heard that oil production is essential to the economic health and well-being of both the local area and the state. The politicians, plus key representatives of schools, parks, fire fighters, police officers, sheriffs, hospitals, local businesses and the homeless, all claimed that less oil production would be an economic disaster for their respective programs.

Because California currently gets more oil from Saudi Arabia and South America than what is produced here, pictures of Saudi beheadings and women being flogged for adultery were presented as reasons not to cut back on local oil production. The lack of California environmental rules in foreign oil field activities were also mentioned.

A picture of a streambed filled with oil in Colombia was flashed on a large screen. It actually looked similar to what everyone witnessed a few months ago in a Kern County streambed. Local police shootings, homelessness, unemployment and lousy air quality were not mentioned.

In essence, Kern County was presented as the most wonderful place in the world because of the local oil industry.

But here is Dirty Secret No. 1: The main reason for a significant decline in Kern County oil production in recent years is not regulation but the price of oil. It has not been consistently high enough to justify the extreme methods of steam injection and fracking required to get the heavy Kern crude out of the ground. It turns out that oil production in Saudi Arabia does not use similar practices, and its oil is less than half as energy intensive to produce and that includes the energy to ship it here. 

What the oil companies really want is a mandate that California purchase local oil, no matter the cost, before importing any oil. The industry falsely claims that it can become carbon neutral if necessary, and carbon negative, if paid enough money and given the opportunity for more offsets through cap and trade.

But, they cried, please don’t put us out of business with new rules. They basically want consumers of gasoline and diesel to pay them to do wildly expensive and dangerous carbon capture and sequestration and pay for pig farms in Missouri to capture methane from their putrid manure lagoons. Then everyone can keep driving their internal combustion vehicles and the economy will keep growing (at least for their stockholders and CEOs).

Now for Dirty Secret No. 2: Despite serious goals of carbon neutrality in California by 2045, the downward path to that goal, in terms of less fossil fuel use in transportation, has not yet begun. For several years now, greenhouse gases from the transportation sector have actually climbed because of economic growth and painfully slow adoption of electric vehicles.

Simultaneous with regulating the oil industry into a nearly complete phaseout over the next 20 years, California has to greatly speed up the use of electric vehicles including trucks. These can be battery- or hydrogen-powered because both sufficient electricity and hydrogen can be made with renewable resources such as wind and solar.

Sadly, we are moving too slowly in transforming our energy use to zero emissions.


Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit


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