“We are very proud of our oil industry and our contribution to national security,” said Dave Noerr, the mayor of Taft, a city of 9,400 in the southwest foothills. “We’re just a bunch of hard-working, America-loving good ol’ boys.”
Such moves make county officials’ latest action all the more remarkable. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance in March that’s likely to significantly accelerate drilling — with as many as 40,000 new oil and gas wells in Kern by mid-2030. Its language, crafted in consultation with the industry, includes a blanket environmental impact statement that will make it easier for companies to get drilling permits.
“We all realize change is inevitable. New technology, new innovations will eventually change the way we produce and consume energy in the future,” Chairman Phillip Peters, whose family has deep roots in oil, said just before the vote. “But while we are looking at that, I don’t think we can ignore the present. The world still runs on Kern oil.”
The outcome, following a nine-hour hearing that was one of the longest in board history, is a window on the stakes involved as communities and states try to shift away from fossil fuels to slow climate change.
In Kern, it raises land-use and groundwater issues, further pitting the oil and gas industry against the equally important agricultural sector. For the region’s large Hispanic community — families who live or work near the open wells — it puts their health even more in the crosshairs.
“The reality is that we’re so afraid,” Estela Escoto said Tuesday through a interpreter. “Everything that the oil industry and the gas industry have dumped into our communities are only bad things.”
On a hot afternoon, residents can barely see the Sierra Nevada mountains that border the valley to the east because of the dense pollution. Drilled wells release greenhouse gas emissions that are major contributors to climate change and respiratory problems. The closer the proximity to the source, studies show, the higher the risk.
In 2020, Kern was ranked the worst U.S. county for year-round particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s annual report. A high proportion of Kern’s “disadvantaged community” lives near emissions sources such as extraction, distribution and refining sites, according to state data.
When Escoto and her husband moved from Los Angeles to the small city of Arvin, which sits southeast of Bakersfield, it was to buy their “dream” retirement home. But it didn’t take long before both were dealing with extreme year-round allergies. Escoto’s throat would get so itchy that she dreamed of shoving her hand down it to scratch.
“We went to the doctor and he told us, ‘You live in Arvin? Well then, I recommend that you move, because it’s one of the most polluted communities,’” Escoto recalled. “At first we laughed, then we got mad.”
She now heads the Committee for a Better Arvin, a local environmental justice group that was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit fighting the original environmental impact assessment needed for proposed wells. The outcome forced the county to require greater pollution mitigation by companies. Some of the same plaintiffs are now challenging the supervisors’ latest vote, which they believe was motivated by the tax dollars and jobs that new wells represent.
“We feel neglected. We feel that they are not taking us seriously,” Escoto said of the board, which she says ignored a request to provide meeting materials about the ordinance in Spanish. “And they decided to come and put an ordinance that would allow thousands of oil wells in a span of 15 years. … It completely sets aside our suffering, our struggles.”
The fossil fuel industry has strong ties to Kern. Towns bear the names “Oildale” and “Oil City.” The American Petroleum Institute adopts its highways. A program that lets local high school students take math, science or engineering classes free at California State University Bakersfield is funded by and named after Chevron. The oil and gas industry also pays upward of $197 million in yearly property taxes, money that helps pay for teachers, police officers and firefighters. That isn’t lost on residents.
“People don’t fully understand, not just the contributions that come from…