California Governor Newsom and Oil Industry Face Off

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Kern county in California is on one hand an agricultural wonderland helping feed the planet. On the other it is polluted and toxic, with some of the worst air and water pollution in the country. It is the nexus of the difficult decisions before us as we meet the challenge of climate change and environmental degradation. It is also a clear signal as to why fossil fuel companies and government must be held accountable.

Kern County is the largest oil-producing county in the U.S. It happens to be located in California, a state that announced new regulations for oil drilling at the end of 2019. On one side there is the oil industry that wants to maintain the status quo, and on the other side, there are environmentalists who want to protect the state’s air and water.

The place was packed at the Kern County Board of Supervisors’ meeting on January 14, 2020. The reason is simple: Representatives from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office and oil industry leaders attended to hear oil industry executives speak about how regulations are harming the local economy. While many in attendance agreed with the oil industry, about 100 people at the meeting supported the state regulations.

Kern County leads the nation in agriculture and pollution

Kern County is not only one of the leading oil-producing areas. It is one of the top agricultural counties in the country and the leading producer of carrots, with more than 80 percent of all carrots grown there. The county also grows many other crops, including potatoes, lettuce, garlic, onion, tomatoes, bell peppers, cotton, and grapes. Every year, more than 100,000 acres of vegetables alone are grown in the county.

Kern County also has one of the most polluted air basins in the U.S. Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County, ranked number three for ozone pollution, number two for year-round particle pollution, and number one for short-term particle pollution, in the American Lung Association’s 2019 State of the Air report.

Not only is the air polluted in Kern County, but the water is as well. Pollutants from the oil industry were found in the water in the county, according to a 2018 report by the State Water Resources Control Board. Arsenic, barium, and boron are some of the chemicals found at elevated levels. The report also found an increase in hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, near protected groundwater in California. Most fracking in the state occurs in four oil fields in Kern County.

California is the only state with substantial oil production to allow wastewater to be put into unlined pits. Toxic chemicals from oil industry waste were found in groundwater in Kern County, a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey report revealed. Water samples from wells included dangerous chemicals such as benzene, known to cause cancer.

“The Central Valley, particularly Kern County, ranks number one for numerous environmental injustices, including having the worst air quality in the nation,” said Gustavo Aguirre Jr., Kern County coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “To add insult to injury, now we have confirmation of something we suspected all along: Wastewater from oil companies is contaminating our groundwater.”

The status quo must end

Climate change is the leading environmental problem of our age. While wildfires rage, hurricanes increase in intensity and frequency, flooding increases, and droughts occur, the oil industry wants to maintain the status quo. 

Most of the country’s human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2017, carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy equaled about 76 percent of total U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions and 93 percent of total U.S. anthropogenic GHG emissions.

It is time for the status quo to end. It is time for the oil industry to own up to the environmental damage it causes. Until it does, governments must hold it accountable. The planet and its inhabitants depend upon that accountability.

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