With a rallying cry of “Stand with Kern County — Stand up to Big Oil,” environmental activists from outside the area are planning a trip to Bakersfield early next month to support local opponents of a plan to streamline petroleum permitting in California’s busiest oil-producing region.
Organizers with climate change group 350.org are working to sign up people to take a bus or van to a Nov. 9 meeting at which the county Board of Supervisors will consider a sweeping environmental review and a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would make Kern drilling permits a strictly ministerial affair.
Already the permitting proposal has drawn opposition from environmental groups expected to sue if the board approves the plan. Depending on how successful 350.org’s recruitment drive is, the effort could change the tone, if not the underlying political support, of a process that has been dominated by oil industry supporters.
Kern Citizens for Energy, an oil industry-supported group, learned of 350.org’s organizing effort and put out a news release Friday headlined “Dear San Francisco & LA: Thanks but no thanks!” It objected to the environmental group’s claims that the industry victimizes local minority populations and quoted leaders from three Kern business groups as backing oil production as a local economic engine.
KCE Executive Director Tracy Leach said by email her group welcomes anti-oil activists but that “it’s hard to ignore the incredible hypocrisy as they ride in their buses made of and fueled by petroleum products.”
Linda Capato, a Bay Area campaigner with 350.org, emphasized no environmentalists from outside Kern will be asked to speak at the meeting, in deference to local groups that invited like-minded activists to the Nov. 9 meeting as a show of solidarity.
She declined to estimate how many environmental activists will turn out but said they will likely come from Southern California, the Bay Area and the Central Valley.
“It’s not going to be one of those things where it’s just folks from San Francisco,” she said, “because that would be silly.”
Gustavo Aguirre, a project coordinator with Kern Environmental Enforcement Network, which tracks and reports suspected pollution near local minority communities, said he welcomes involvement by outside activists.
“I think it comes down to showing support for local communities that deal with environmental justice issues,” he said, using a term that refers to minorities — Latinos, in this case — living next to polluting industrial activities.
A recent Kern County Planning Commission hearing on the permitting plan was attended by hundreds of industry supporters, some proudly donning buttons and stickers stating “I am the Oil Industry.” Critical comments were made by farmers and local activists, but their statements and showing in the audience were outnumbered by those of oil producers, workers and other supporters, including agricultural interests.
The proposed zoning ordinance change has come at a cost of more than $10 million to California’s oil industry, whose production activity overwhelmingly takes place in Kern County. Three petroleum trade groups requested the amendment after environmentalists and some local farmers targeted state environmental reviews of Kern County oil projects.
If the Board of Supervisors approves the plan, as appears likely, and if it stands up in court, the change would be a landmark.
The county currently has little to no role in oil permitting; it treats drilling as a property right. Under the plan, which would have a 25-year lifespan, oil companies would gain regulatory certainty in exchange for paying many thousands of dollars per project into a locally administered air-quality fund. Also, other regional and state agencies have said they intend to use Kern’s environmental assessment as a basis for their own reviews of local oil projects.
But environmental groups and farming interests have criticized Kern’s review as overly general, among many other alleged shortcomings. They appear to be positioning themselves to attack the 2,000-page document in court, which the county says it fully expects but which it plans to counter with equal tenacity.