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ROBERT PRICE: Can you imagine Bakersfield without oil? EPA does

SACRAMENTO — The end of oil.

Fighting words for a lot of folks. 

The end of Kern County's lifeblood. The end of Kern County's historical identity, of its calloused-hands persona, of its proud role as the literal engine of American mobility.

Telling Kern County that California has reached the end of oil is like telling a cowboy to go home because the cattle drive has no more cattle. What now? A cowboy has to feed his family.

But Tuesday in Sacramento, that reality — perhaps unfathomable in Bakersfield, where Once a Driller, Always a Driller has crossed over school boundaries for six generations — was placed squarely on the table. At a public hearing hosted by the California Environmental Protection Agency, the end of oil sounded like fait accompli.

The latest state budget includes $3 million for a pair of $1.5 million studies that will research California's path to a carbon-neutral economy by midcentury. One of those studies will be dedicated to orchestrating a progressive reduction in fossil fuel demand and supply. A reduction in supply, theoretically, to virtually zero.

Supply. That's us. That's 14,213 people directly employed in Kern County by the oil and gas industry, according to a recent study undertaken by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. at the behest of the Western States Petroleum Assoc. That's another 23,900 people employed in Kern County jobs supported by the oil and gas industry. That's roughly 400,000 people whose standard of living is in some way tied to the health of the Kern County oil and gas industry.

Don't Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state EPA and the other decision makers in Sacramento understand what the end of oil would impose on the southern San Joaquin Valley?

I attended the EPA hearing to find out.

Emphatically, the answer seems to be yes. The three-hour discussion might have focused on bureaucratic nuance: infrastructure development, incentives for renewables, trip reduction strategies, new technologies, that sort of thing. And to varying degrees it did.

But in fact the topic that dominated on both sides of the dais was the fragile nature of the Kern County's two-headed economy. Bakersfield and Kern County, utterly reliant on agriculture and oil, must see economic growth and diversification in ways not yet identified that maintain or even enhance the region's present level of prosperity.

"The workforce is very vulnerable right now," Ingrid Brostrom of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment told a panel of state officials representing some of the half-dozen agencies set to play a role in a transition taking direct aim at Kern County. The state must "look for ways to bolster Kern County's economic development."

Sarah White, a senior economic advisor to the governor, put it this way: Kern County must see a "just transition." The southern valley, she said, must develop a new set of high quality jobs, and comprehensive training for those still unidentified jobs.

That may prove more difficult than anyone at the hearing might imagine. Kern County oil jobs pay well — well over $100,000 per year in many cases, and often a high school diploma suffices. Oil jobs that require advanced degrees often surpass $200,000 per year. Those jobs aren't easily replaced in a county with one of the lowest educational attainment levels in the state.

The two studies are still in the scoping phase. Entities that have scarcely even been approached may eventually play roles in the studies, perhaps important ones. Tuesday's session was about questions and goals, not answers or success stories.

"Study 1" will identify strategies to significantly reduce emissions from vehicles and to achieve carbon neutrality in the transportation sector.

"Study 2," the one that most impacts Kern County, will identify strategies to decrease the demand and supply of fossil fuels, managing the industry's decline in a way that is economically responsible and sustainable.

Ashley Conrad-Saydah, the EPA's deputy secretary for climate policy, said the key at this point is inclusiveness. Kern County, she said, must be a partner in the transition.

To that end, the EPA will host public hearings in Kern County and Los Angeles County in October; dates and venues have not yet been set.

In the meantime the agency is accepting public comments. Email climatechange@calepa.ca.gov. For information on the studies, visit calepa.ca.gov/climate/carbon-neutrality-studies.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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