The Fossil Fuel Industry's Last Stand in California Oil Country
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The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Last Stand in California Oil Country

One of the state’s most polluted counties is poised to rubber stamp new oil and gas wells for decades to come—putting its most vulnerable residents at risk.

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South Belridge Oil Field, near Lost Hills. (All photos by Aaron Cantú.)

Jesus Alonso still recalls the terrible rotten egg smell he’d whiff on his way to school in Lamont, California, immediately downwind from a large oil refinery and within a few miles of the Mountain View Oil Field. The release of toxic emissions and flammable gases from such industrial operations has been linked to health problems elsewhere.

“You can smell it well before you reach the school,” recounts Alonso, now an organizer with Clean Water Action. “Growing up, I thought that this was just all normal—but getting used to that oil and gas smell isn’t normal. Having headaches, nosebleeds, very dry skin, high rates of asthma, all of that is not normal.”
 


A proposed ordinance would allow Kern County to approve thousands of wells per year on 2.3 million acres of unincorporated land without public hearings, while circumventing the state’s legally mandated review of individual wells.


 
Across Kern County, where Alonso works, there are nearly 300,000 people within a mile of a well; analysis by environmental justice advocates indicates three quarters of those most at risk for pollution-related health issues are people of color. But with 70% percent of oil and nearly 80% of gas produced in California coming from the county, the local power and influence of the industry is overwhelming, and Alonso and other organizers have faced an uphill battle in their efforts to mitigate harms caused by fossil fuel operations.

As oil and gas production declines across the state and the current governor vows to “transition away from fossil fuels,” an investigation by Capital & Main has found that the industry is mounting something of a last stand in Kern County. This effort has included the formulation and promotion of an ordinance to streamline the approval process of new oil and gas wells. The industry has paid the county millions of dollars to support this effort, according to county records obtained by Capital & Main, including for legal fees after environmental groups and others sued the county in 2015 over the ordinance.
 


Recent studies by California researchers linked proximity to oil wells in the San Joaquin Valley to poor birth outcomes.


 
The county is already among the most heavily polluted in the nation; globally, pollution from fossil fuel combustion led to 8.7 million deaths in 2018, according to a peer-reviewed study. Yet even as the county acknowledges that new wells approved under the ordinance will worsen local air pollution, the majority of dollars in a mitigation fund established to offset this pollution are unlikely to go to the communities most burdened by new wells, according to Capital & Main’s analysis of the fund.

The newly proposed ordinance is a slightly modified version of an older one invalidated by a state appeals court in February 2020 for improperly assessing pollution impacts. The county says the new ordinance addresses those concerns, but will still result in about 40,445 new wells, up to 2,687 per year, over the next 15 years—all but locking in significant fossil fuel operations, even as the state seeks to decarbonize the economy in the coming decades. Together with more than 9,000 new wells approved over the last five years under the old ordinance, this would nearly double the 58,000 oil and gas production, cyclic steam and enhanced oil recovery wells that were active in 2015 in Kern County.
 


With county fossil fuel assets valued at $15.7 billion, both industry and government fear they have much to lose as the industry teeters on the edge of huge energy policy changes.


 
Critics and environmental advocates—including city officials within the county—say that by greenlighting the new oil and gas ordinance, the county’s board of supervisors will be creating a public health disaster for vulnerable residents, particularly in light of research linking air pollution to a greater likelihood of death from the coronavirus. The county declined a request for an interview and declined to respond to a detailed list of questions submitted by Capital & Main concerning the ordinance, pointing instead to a public hearing.

With fossil fuel assets in Kern valued at $15.7 billion, both the industry and the county fear they have much to lose as the industry teeters on the edge of huge changes to energy policy in the 21st century. But residents say their communities living with chronic illness have already lost too much for the sake of industry profits, and they are demanding the county invest in a greener future.

  *   *   *

Sixty miles from Lamont, in the far northwestern edge of the county, the community of Lost Hills sits immediately downwind from one of the largest oil fields in California. With more than 5,000 wells stretched across the 10-mile-wide Lost Hills Oil Field, pumpjacks and hydrofracturing towers appear to sprawl endlessly toward the western horizon.

A home in Lost Hills.

Some 2,400 people live here, 97% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino. Poverty is severe, and more than two-thirds work in the agriculture industry, whose workers have been hard hit by the pandemic. In addition to fossil fuel operations, residents also point to industrial traffic and wafting clouds of pesticides as constant irritants. It functions as a company town for the Wonderful Company, which is among the biggest producers of almonds and pistachios in the world.

Ana Marie Diaz, a 69-year-old grandmother, arrived at Lost Hills from the Mexican state of Morelos in the 1980s. She soon met and married an immigrant from the Mexican state of Nayarit, and they started a family. He worked as a welder for an agricultural company among the expansive nut and citrus groves in the county, while she stayed home with their children on a ranch home they rented with other families.

In 1998, a major natural gas explosion at a nearby well rattled Diaz’s home; she recalls a greasy, yellowish white liquid raining down on her and having to evacuate for months. But this was just the most dramatic example of the impact that nearby fossil fuel operations have had on her life; otherwise, she says, living with toxic air wasn’t something she ever questioned.
 


Starting in 2013, the industry has sent at least $6.7 million to the county, paid by the Western States Petroleum Association, for the costs of preparing environmental reviews, staff time and litigation.


 
“We were accustomed to it, to the chemicals—it wasn’t anything strange for us,” Diaz told Capital & Main in Spanish.

In recent years, Diaz and her husband have grown ill. She now lives with colon cancer—she does not know the cause—while her husband has suffered four heart attacks and several bouts of pneumonia. She’s since moved to a newer housing development slightly further away from the oil field, but now must trek to Bakersfield, 42 miles southeast, for check-ups every three months.

“I’m the primary caretaker of my husband, and being gone all day is tough on him because it’s an hour drive to the doctor and an hour back,” Diaz said.

It’s difficult to pin down an environmental cause for any one particular illness, but some have tried to show links. In an analysis for the city of Los Angeles, the nonprofit research institute PSE Healthy Energy identified more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies conducted in states such as Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado showing correlations between living near oil and gas operations and a higher prevalence of various cancers and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Recent studies by California researchers linked proximity to oil wells in the San Joaquin Valley to poor birth outcomes.
 


“You had the oil companies basically controlling the zoning and indemnifying the county, so that’s very different than just a specific building permit or project, and we were very surprised to see that.”

–Rachel Hooper, attorney


 
A 2015 report by Earthworks, a nonprofit that advocates for communities vulnerable to industrial pollution, found that more than half of people surveyed in Lost Hills reported skin rashes or dryness, frequent eye issues such as burning, severe fatigue and respiratory issues. At least a quarter also experienced digestive problems, muscle pains, neurological issues and random nosebleeds or hearing loss. More than 80% said they could smell rotten eggs in their home—likely a byproduct of hydrogen sulfide at petroleum drilling sites. The survey also identified a stillborn infant and others born with learning disabilities, low birth weight and spinal deformities.

Using an infrared camera to identify emissions from the oil field, Earthworks identified high levels of trimethylsilanol, known to irritate human respiratory and digestive systems, and notable levels of methane, ethanol, acetone and other compounds—all linked to common health problems in Lost Hills. But no report or assessment has effectively captured the potential scale of illness, or adequately shown causation, according to Rosanna Esparza, a gerontologist and former organizer for Clean Water Action who assisted with the survey.

Pumpjacks, South Belridge Oil Field.

“No one has cared enough to fund a study on hazardous environmental conditions in the county,” Esparza told Capital & Main. “We may have chronic diseases, but they are exacerbated by chemicals used in the production of oil and gas.” (The county’s health department declined to comment.)

Back in 2015, Esparza was one of many community members who spoke against Kern County’s proposed ordinance to streamline oil and gas operations. Though it was ultimately invalidated by a state appellate court that found it did not adequately mitigate air pollution, among other problems, an updated version now headed to a vote by the county’s supervisors is raising similar alarms among residents and environmentalists.

  *   *   *

Oil production in California peaked in 1985, and natural gas production has followed a similarly downward slope since. By 2012, environmentalists and others were filing lawsuits against the state for approving drilling without proper environmental review.

It was against this backdrop that representatives from three oil industry lobbying groups approached Kern County in 2013 with a proposal for an ordinance that would allow the county to streamline approvals for new oil and gas extraction permits based on a single, one-size-fits-all environmental review, rather than subject each proposed well to its own review by the state regulatory agency, the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM).

The ordinance would allow the county to approve thousands of wells per year on 2.3 million acres of unincorporated land without public hearings, so long as their operators met a checklist of predetermined criteria—similar to how the county issued building permits. By leaning on the county’s blanket environmental review, producers could circumvent the state’s legally mandated review of individual wells (though CalGEM is currently the subject of a lawsuit alleging it did not review the environmental impacts of nearly 2,000 new wells last year).
 


The proposed ordinance would allow new oil and gas wells within 210 feet of homes and 300 feet of schools–well within the distance studies have found to be hazardous for human health.


 
Starting in 2013, the industry has sent at least $6.7 million to the county, paid by the Western States Petroleum Association, for the costs of preparing environmental reviews, staff time and litigation, according to Capital & Main’s review of county records obtained through a public information request. The reimbursements covered costs for hiring an environmental consulting firm and a private legal team, and also supplemented county staff salaries. The oil lobbying group sent an initial payment to the county of $1,766,598.00 in June 2013 and subsequently sent payments totaling $2,212,082.45 by the time the ordinance went into effect in December 2015.

According to Rachel Hooper, a lawyer who successfully litigated against the first ordinance on behalf of a farmer client, it’s not unusual for a developer who approaches the county asking for a zoning change to pay for associated costs. But such requests are generally much more limited in scope and only apply to one or a handful of companies.

“This was a proposed ordinance that applied across the board to all the oil companies—anyone who wanted to drill,” Hooper told Capital & Main. “You had the oil companies basically controlling the zoning and indemnifying the county, so that’s very different than just a specific building permit or project, and we were very surprised to see that.”

A spokesperson for the Western States Petroleum Association did not respond to questions from Capital & Main about its financial backing of the ordinance. The county also declined to comment.
 


A $70 million pollution offset fund paid for only one upgrade in Lamont—a single school bus replacement for $82,113.70.


 
More broadly, the county’s board of supervisors has long been sympathetic to the interests of the oil industry, according to Juan Flores, a community organizer for the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment in the city of Delano.

“There’s a lack of innovative thinking within the elected officials of Kern County,” Flores told Capital & Main. “They have depended so much on oil for more than 100 years they don’t think another industry could provide the same amount of high-paying jobs. So there’s a bias.”

When the county’s board of supervisors held a public hearing in Bakersfield to vote on the ordinance, they met staunch resistance from community residents and climate advocates. One ICU nurse working in Kern County for 24 years told the board that she had observed higher rates of respiratory illness among increasingly younger patients. Esparza, the gerontologist and community organizer, said her studies showed that living in the county for 25 years resulted in a decrease of lifespan compared to nearby counties, attributable to air pollution.

Many who showed up to speak in support of the ordinance touted the generosity of the industry. One representative from the county’s Boys and Girls Club chapter, Ricki Peace, noted that companies like Chevron, Aera Energy and California Resources Corporation supplied curriculum and funding for its five dozen locations throughout the county.
 


One supporter of the ordinance is Jay Tamsi, the president and CEO of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which has received funding from the Kern Energy Festival, an annual event funded by the industry.


 
“Our oil and gas partners have made transformational strides to create great futures for the children of our community,” Peace stated.

Another supporter of the ordinance, president and CEO of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Jay Tamsi, praised the industry’s environmental stewardship, claiming that it “continues to meet and oftentimes exceed [sic] some of the most stringent environmental regulations in our country,” a frequent industry talking point. Tamsi’s chamber has received funding from the Kern Energy Festival, an annual event funded by the industry.

For a little over four years that the ordinance was in place, the county processed 9,648 permits for fossil fuel operations, including 7,002 for new oil and gas activities. But after environmental groups and others sued, the entire ordinance was struck down by an appellate court in February 2020, which ruled that the environmental impact assessment on which the ordinance was based violated state environmental law.

Entering South Belridge Oil Field, near Lost Hills.

Specifically, the ruling said, the blanket environmental review accompanying the ordinance failed to properly account for or to mitigate impacts to air quality and related health risks, as well as water, noise and agricultural land pollution. From 2016 through 2020, the Western States Petroleum Association sent an additional $2,715,146.87 to the county for legal fees to defend the ordinance and fund new environmental assessments.

After the ruling, the county stopped processing all new permits, per the court’s order. The county is now barreling forward with a newly proposed ordinance that critics say is hardly different from the version that got thrown out of court.

  *   *   *

Last October, eight months after the original ordinance was invalidated, the county released a new environmental assessment for the slightly updated version. Advocates fear the county is rushing a new ordinance with many of the same problems as the old one. One of their primary concerns is the county’s proposed pollution mitigation effort, meant to offset air pollution for those living near new wells. The county is proposing that oil and gas companies pay a pollution fee each time the county awards them a permit to drill a new well.

After the new well is operational, the county would send these funds to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District—a separate regulatory body made up of local officials in the region—in order to “offset” the pollution. This oil and gas pollution mitigation fund could be used to, for example, fund transitions from diesel to electric engines for agricultural equipment and company trucks, or to incentivize low emission equipment purchases for local businesses, organizations and public facilities.
 


“Our communities suffer greatly from pollution,” said Anabel Marquez, a resident of Shafter. “We should be above any profits of the oil companies.”


 
The problem, according to advocates, is that these funds can be used to offset pollution across a vast expanse of land totaling more than 23,490 square miles. Yet the proposed ordinance would allow new oil and gas wells within 210 feet of homes and 300 feet of schools–well within the distance studies have found to be hazardous for human health.

“If oil companies can’t mitigate pollution on site, they just pay a certain amount of money to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, and then the air district takes over responsibility for coming up with those emissions reductions elsewhere,” explained Catherine Garoupa White, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. “But that won’t help the communities directly affected by the pollution.”

The proposed arrangement is the exact same one that had been in effect for the first ordinance from 2016 to early 2020. According to a breakdown of figures provided to Capital & Main from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the majority of those fees—totaling $70.3 million—were used to pay for upgrades in regions far from the communities that will be most impacted by new fossil fuel operations. Forty-three percent of the money was allocated outside Kern County.

In total, 88% of what the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District had spent by February 2021 went toward upgrading agricultural equipment, replacing diesel trucks and incentivizing shredding rather than burning agricultural material. The remainder was used mostly for changing out fireplaces and wood-burning stoves and swapping out diesel-powered school buses and industrial dairy equipment. A total of $30.5 million went to projects in neighboring counties like Tulare, King and Fresno. About a third of the total fund, $23.5 million, went toward projects in Bakersfield, the county seat and Kern’s largest city.
 


In addition to ineffective mitigation efforts, advocates say the county’s analysis of potential health impacts from new wells has obscured actual health risks for nearby communities.


 
In comparison, about $14 million, or about 20% of the total, went to unincorporated communities in Kern County situated near oil fields. Among those that received more than $1 million, this includes $2.6 million for upgrades to agricultural equipment in Lost Hills, and $3 million for mostly similar purposes in Shafter; $2 million for Buttonwillow; $3.3 million for Wasco; $1.1 million for Arvin; and $1.4 million for McFarland. The fund paid for only one upgrade in Lamont—a single school bus replacement for $82,113.70.

In addition to ineffective mitigation efforts, advocates say the county’s analysis of potential health impacts from new wells has obscured actual health risks for nearby communities.

A report by FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that tracks oil and gas industry operations for public education, claims the county’s analysis uses census tracts that are too large to accurately estimate human proximity to fossil fuel operations. According to Kyle Ferrar, the alliance’s Western program coordinator, the county analysis is “essentially gerrymandering to disguise the blatant environmental inequities that exist in Kern County.”

In response to this criticism, the county stood by its analysis, which concluded that most new oil and gas activities “are more likely to occur in census tracts that have a higher proportion of White and less impoverished residents.” But some wealthier communities within these tracts are actually further away from oil and gas operations than smaller, unincorporated communities in neighboring tracts.

“If you only consider the impacts for massive estate and industrial zoned parcels and census tracts, but you don’t include the neighboring residential zoned areas that are largely nonwhite, Latinx and low income, you’re just ignoring frontline communities” such as Lost Hills and Lamont, Ferrar told Capital & Main.
 


Planning Commissioner Lorelei Oviatt said the ordinance was necessary to protect the county’s tax base. Seven of Kern County’s 10 largest taxpayers were from the energy industry.


 
At the February 11 meeting, Lorelei Oviatt, director of the county’s planning department, asserted the new ordinance would protect residents’ health and effectively mitigate harms. In addition to the oil and gas pollution mitigation fund, she said, companies will also pay a small fee per new well to establish a disadvantaged community drinking water fund.

“We don’t dispute there are impacts to the environment,” Oviatt said. “We are as interested as anyone in protecting the health and safety of our communities, and we are not interested in allowing Sacramento to be the arbitrator of what is protection.”

  *   *   *

On Feb. 10, advocacy groups held a virtual press conference one day before the public hearing on the new ordinance by the county’s planning department. The county’s board of supervisors is expected to vote on the ordinance on March 8.

“Our communities suffer greatly from pollution,” said Anabel Marquez, a resident of Shafter, during the conference. “We should be above any profits of the oil companies.”

Despite the pandemic, advocates say they delivered 7,000 signatures opposing the ordinance to the planning department. But whether supervisors have a change of heart on the ordinance this time—an unlikely prospect—they’ll be voting in an environment in which the fossil fuel industry appears to be on the ropes worldwide.

Trailer park, Lost Hills.

In January 2020, in response to a series of new and potential reforms to oil and gas operations announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Independent Petroleum Association, one of the groups behind the ordinance, mobilized more than 1,000 pro-industry attendees for a county meeting at the invitation of the county. A year later, the chairman of the county’s board of supervisors, Phillip Peters, expressed support for the new ordinance’s passage.

“The oil industry is absolutely critical here in Kern County,” Peters said during a state-of-the-county broadcast. “We would like to see that oil and gas [environmental impact review] process behind us.”

According to a county report last year, the industry brought in $197.1 million in property tax revenue for the county during fiscal year 2018-19; seven of the top 10 largest taxpayers in the county were from the industry. More than half of this revenue, $103 million, went to school districts across the county.

Reached by email, a spokesperson for Gov. Newsom declined to comment directly on the county ordinance but summarized several reforms the administration is pursuing, including new health regulations regarding distance between communities and fossil fuel operations and tightening rules for above ground oil leaks, fracking and plugging inactive wells. Newsom’s 2021 state budget includes $4.8 million to hire 26 new regulators for the oil and gas industry.

In response to hundreds of comments from climate and environmental justice advocates suggesting the county ban fossil fuel production and begin a transition to renewable energy, Oviatt, the county planner, said the ordinance was necessary to protect the county’s tax base.

“It’s essential we adopt this protective ordinance because we need this industry stability while these changes driven by the state of California and energy realities are addressed by the industry, and new forms of energy production are brought to market,” Oviatt said.

The governor’s spokesperson said the administration was “serious about supporting regions in developing ‘just transition’ strategies to further diversify our economy, support innovation and growth of low-carbon industries, and ensure that all Californians benefit from the transition to carbon neutrality.”

For Augustin Bernadino, who has lived in Lost Hills for 47 years, low income residents have never felt like a priority for either the county or the state.

“How long have we been asking our representatives for cleaner streets, better security, safer streets, clean air, new light fixtures? How long have we called for more support for our community, how many times have they listened to us?” Bernadino said in Spanish. “This is why we see our representatives as not representing us—a community like ours tends to be forgotten.”

For Jesus Alonso, community organizing has been a way of understanding his own upbringing and the larger forces keeping his community trapped in a toxic environment.

“It’s difficult to wrap my mind around how eager they are to fast-track oil drilling,” Flores says. “I understand how oil is economically important, but I don’t see how it’s acceptable to cut corners so that there’s financial gain for some—because the money just goes one way, and the health issues always come our way.”


Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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