Kern County, in the south Central Valley of California, produces 80 percent of the state’s onshore oil and gas — and has some of the country’s worst year-round air pollution. Now, the county is set to increase the number of oil and gas wells from 78,000 to 121,000, after a controversial ordinance was unanimously approved earlier this week by the Kern County Board of Supervisors to fast-track the permitting of 43,000 new wells over the next 15 years.
Oil and gas drilling in the county already weighs heavily on the residents of Kern. Some 71,000 people in Kern County — nearly 8 percent of residents — live within roughly a half-mile of oil and gas wells, and a third of the county’s wells are within the same distance of schools and hospitals. As a result, drilling has taken a toll on public health from the particulate matter in the air as well as from the toxic soup of chemicals in the wells. Living near these sites is linked to a host of health conditions: respiratory problems, migraines, nosebleeds, higher rates of asthma attacks, cancer, and preterm birth.
More than 250 residents spoke out against the ordinance at a Board of Supervisors meeting before the vote on Monday, with many citing the effects of oil and gas drilling on their health. These burdens are not evenly distributed: Of the 1.8 million Californians who live within a mile of oil and gas development and live in heavily polluted areas, 92 percent are people of color. “It’s not going to be the rich, white suburbs that are affected, it’s Black, Latinx, and low-income communities that will be,” said Riddhi Patel, the communications coordinator for the Center for Race, Poverty, and Environment, or CRPE, at the hearing. “If you choose to approve this ordinance, there is blood on your hands.”
The ordinance is an updated version of one that was passed in 2015, which allowed oil and gas companies to bypass a lengthy review for each proposed well by issuing a blanket environmental statement. Last year, a California appellate court deemed that ordinance illegal for violating the California Environmental Quality Act. Before it was struck down, however, the county had approved more than 18,000 permits under the old ordinance, most of them in census tracts that were predominantly low-income and Hispanic — creating sacrifice zones in the service of oil extraction.
Juan Flores, a Kern County organizer for CRPE, said he’s not surprised that the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance despite the pushback at Monday’s hearing. In Flores’ view, the Board of Supervisors is highly sympathetic to the oil industry. Now that the ordinance has passed, he says it’s time for California Governor Gavin Newsom and state agencies such as the California Geologic Energy Management Division, the agency in charge of regulating the oil and gas industry, to take action. He noted that Newsom has failed to follow through on campaign promises to ban fracking and get tough on the oil industry. “So far with this administration, we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric, a lot of words, a lot of promises,” said Flores. “Yet we have not gotten to the actions.”
One way to mitigate the public health impacts of drilling in Kern County, and statewide, would be to introduce setback regulations, a mandatory minimum distance between oil and gas wells and residential areas — a regulation that many oil-producing states already have in place. Activists in California have been advocating for setbacks for years, but haven’t yet succeeded at the state level. A bill that would have introduced 2,500-foot setbacks in the state was voted down last August by the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, with three Democratic senators voting against the bill. A new bill that would ban fracking and institute setbacks for new and renewed oil and gas permits, SB 467, was introduced last month in the California state Senate.
One obstacle to passing legislation like SB 467 is the sheer amount of money invested by the oil industry into California politics. The oil industry spent more than $10 million lobbying California politicians last year against policies they opposed, including setback regulations.
Flores pointed to SB 467 as an opportunity for legislators to prove that they’re serious about fighting environmental injustice and climate change. But in the meantime, regarding California’s image as a green state, Flores said, “The reality is that we’re way too far from it. Our communities are still dying.”