Four years before Gov. Gavin Newsom set in motion the managed decline of California's oil industry, Aera Energy CEO Christina Sistrunk was asking questions about the mechanics, and wisdom, of such an undertaking.
In an interview with The Californian in 2015, a few short months after she moved to Bakersfield to assume command of the company, which produces a quarter of the state's oil and gas, Sistrunk wondered what the roadmap for a possible wholesale transition to renewable energy might look like and who might be asked to the table to help chart it.
"I don’t think anybody’s got the full answer to how we need to navigate this," she said at the time. "I don’t see a good blueprint out there anywhere in the world. So, that’s exciting in that we have the opportunity to contribute to that conversation and be an example. But it will also stretch us in terms of our ability to really collaborate, listen and learn from each other and work to create that."
Sistrunk seems to have foreseen a great and historic debate over the future of oil and gas in California, and thus the nation, and now it has come to pass.
The state budget appropriates $1.5 million for a study, commissioned by the California Environmental Protection Agency, that orchestrates a progressive reduction in fossil fuel demand and supply for the purpose of managing California's transition to a carbon-neutral economy by midcentury. That plan, in line with the state’s climate change-fighting goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, appears intended to drastically scale back, if not completely shutter, Kern County's oil industry.
Sistrunk, whose 35-year career in the oil industry has taken her to Houston, New Orleans, the Netherlands and, immediately prior to her Bakersfield assignment, the Arctic, doesn't believe the state's current approach is realistic, equitable or wise.
And others agree.
Severin Borenstein, a professor at UC Berkeley's Hass School of Business and faculty director of its Energy Institute, also wonders if significantly cutting California's oil production would be economically viable and socially just. Advocates of a massive scale-back, he wrote in a 2018 blog post for the Hass School, must consider "the massive transfer of wealth from consumers to producers that would occur." An energy-source transition policy of the type being discussed "reduces emissions ... by raising the price of oil, which means all consumers pay more and all producers — except for those curtailed in California — make more money." And the cost to consumers, as always, would be disproportionately born by the lower income tiers.
Kern County, it bears noting here, has one of the worst poverty rates in the nation.
CalEPA has established an interagency team to develop a framework for the study. It includes the state’s Labor, Transportation, and Natural Resources agencies, as well as the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Researchers from the University of California and other academic institutions also will participate.
No Central California participants — no one from Kern County's prolific renewable energy industry, no one from academic institutions like Bakersfield College or Cal State Bakersfield, which would presumably train a new-generation workforce, no one from the industry most directly affected, oil and gas — have been publicly courted thus far. At least it's still early: The researchers have only just entered the scoping phase.
Members of the study team might want to introduce themselves to Sistrunk, or someone with her knowledge, perspective and temperament.
"I'm a big believer," she said Friday afternoon at Aera's Ming Avenue headquarters, "that the more voices you have around the table when you're trying to solve complex problems, (the chances increase that you'll find) better answers.
"Now, it can be kind of messy in the process because certainly you have a lot of different perspectives to attempt to navigate, I get that. But I don't think you get better solutions by choosing to ignore the inputs of people that you disagree with."
If she were at the table, for example, she would urge the study's decision makers not to invest their hopes in any single power generation source.
The plan, whatever it might be, should not commit to a single track, she says. Forecasting the state of technology and its attendant economics 25 years out risks dubious conclusions.
"When you talk to people who claim they've got a pathway, that pathway is full of assumptions about how fast the technology will mature, how fast the cost will come down," she said. "They probably haven't thought too much about resiliency of the system. ... If you're going to have a backup power source, how many hours or days do you need (to be prepared to support), anticipating that the sun won't shine enough, and the wind won't blow enough, before you go in the dark? So what is your backup system? How much land are you going to need (for, say, solar panels) or how big a battery (for energy storage)?
"There are trade-offs. When you hone in on only one or two technologies ... what do you do if those technologies have some flat spots to them? Consumers expect the lights to come on when they need them, and mobility when they want to have it, at a price they can afford."
She said the study's researchers must look at more than replacing fossil fuels with another suite of energy sources.
"We need to not only think about the physics — does the science work? — and the economics, but we also need to think about what are the economic impacts to different members of the population."
Sistrunk wasn't just referring to the low-income consumers referenced in the governor's original directive. All of Bakersfield and Kern County would be affected by a significantly diminished oil industry, and the hit would filter from the top echelon all the way down to the minimum-wage, subsistence workers.
"When you talk about getting rid of an industry in a part of the state that is not as economically robust as certain other parts of the state, to move a major economic engine from the mix, you talk to the people that are going to be impacted," she said.
She would also point out that removing California oil production from the equation before a new-generation infrastructure is fully in place simply creates a market for foreign oil producers to come in, and they may not abide by the same standards as this state for safety, emissions or human rights.
Is Sistrunk nominating herself? Not necessarily. But if anyone has her pulse on the technical, economic and societal aspect of this profound, coming change, it is the Aera CEO.
Hers is but one local voice the state EPA needs to hear, however. Regional academia has testimony to offer. So does the renewable energy industry.
Kern County must not be left in the dark. In any sense.