TAFT -- Deeply concerned about attacks by environmentalists on fracking, oil industry leaders at a conference on Friday rallied around the idea of a multi-pronged public relations offensive to explain their position. The overriding concern expressed by several speakers was that environmentalists are winning the battle over how to regulate -- and even whether to ban -- hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the highly effective but controversial technique used locally for decades.
Local lawmakers joined industry leaders in calling for more informational outreach to the public, as well as frequent visits with state and national legislators.
The discussions took place at the inaugural West Kern Petroleum Summit, which drew hundreds into a large white tent set up on the campus of Taft College.
Speakers worried that zealous activists could effectively tie the industry's hands as it works to tap the massive Monterey Shale oil reservoir underlying much of the southern Central Valley. Industry trade groups have promoted the economic bonanza that could come from producing along the Monterey, even as insiders have cautioned that much research remains to be done before the formation can live up to its vaunted potential.
While a new state law regulating fracking pushed the technique to the fore Friday, another focus of discussion was the California Environmental Quality Act. Conservationists have used CEQA in recent years to halt new drilling in parts of Kern County and elsewhere.
In a panel discussion moderated by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, openly strategized with Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, on how to push CEQA reform through Sacramento for the benefit of Kern oil producers.
The last lawmaker to lead such a charge was former state Sen. Michael Rubio. The Shafter Democrat spearheaded a CEQA reform attempt last year before resigning in February to take a government affairs job with Chevron.
While Fuller said her minority party status preempted her from taking the lead on reforming the environmental law, Salas noted that he, as a "big believer in CEQA modernization," hopes to do so with the help of other moderates in the Assembly.
"We would love to" have the Assembly move on CEQA reform, he said, except that it requires the cooperation of the chamber's leadership.
Salas said such a campaign would be easier with more industry support -- namely, by inviting state lawmakers from coastal areas to tour Kern County oil operations.
"They only hear the horror stories," he said, "but they don't see how much technology is used. They don't see how much thought goes into this."
This became a common refrain throughout the event.
There were hopes expressed by more than one speaker that Kern County government would prevail in its ongoing efforts to produce a CEQA review of all oilfield activity in the county. If the plan succeeds, environmentalists and others would be unable to use CEQA to challenge local oil production.
Oil companies have not sat entirely silently in the face of environmental rallies and other forms of anti-industry activism. Notably, Chevron has taken its "We Agree" advertising campaign to magazines and billboards around the world, just as industry-friendly documentarians have produced work to counter anti-fracking films.
The maker of one such documentary, "FrackNation," strongly denounced California's environmental movement at Friday's event. Director and producer Ann McElhinney called on the industry to come clean with maps of where fracking takes place.
"Stop hiding, oil and gas companies," she said. "Tell them the truth. ... It looks bad if they have to pull it out of you."
The event's first and highest-profile speaker, Rep. McCarthy, offered a series of proposals aimed making the United States energy-independent.
Claiming the Monterey Shale has the potential to reproduce North Dakota's oil-fueled economic boom here in Kern County, McCarthy called for more regulatory certainty and improved distribution through federal approval of the Keystone Pipeline proposed to carry oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
He also appealed for greater deployment of technology that increases energy efficiency, and for an national energy policy that emphasizes petroleum no less than renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind. He applauded attempts to rework the nation's tax structure in ways that would promote oil investment.
Probably the most enthusiastically received speaker was the former president of Shell Oil Co., John Hofmeister. He delivered a keynote address proposing $1 trillion a year investment in the nation's aging energy infrastructure, including 1960s-era nuclear power plants.
Hofmeister pointed to China's ballooning expenditures on petroleum, and suggested the United States exploit its "hidden asset" by converting a substantial share of the nation's vehicles to run on natural gas.
"Natural gas breaks the gasoline pricing cartel of OPEC," he said.
Critical of the partisanship he saw as standing in the way of progress in Washington, Hofmeister went on to propose a national energy regulatory structure akin to the Federal Reserve System.
Pleas for better industry outreach resurfaced amid a panel of industry professionals toward the end of the summit.
Texas petroleum executive Jerrit Coward said oil companies don't do enough public outreach, and that this has impeded project applications.
Gene Voiland, former president and CEO of Bakersfield-based Aera Energy LLC, called public education and outreach "a really critical area."
He recalled a longtime local teacher who had no idea what purpose is served by the common pumping jack.
"We're not going to get our message to kids through that teacher," he said.