Kern supervisors joined oil industry representatives, local politicians and residents on Jan. 14 in warning state officials that Gov. Gavin Newsom's regulatory crackdown and moves to wind down in-state petroleum production gravely threaten the county's economy and tax base.
The opportunity to impress upon Sacramento regulators the local impacts of the state's oil-unfriendly policies drew an audience estimated at about 1,000 industry supporters — the largest crowd convened in recent years for a government proceeding in Bakersfield.
Meanwhile, environmental justice advocates also showed up at the county's administrative headquarters downtown, albeit in smaller numbers, to welcome the governor's move toward a more diverse, greener economy they said must involve substantial state investment in Kern.
The meeting adjourned shortly before 8 p.m. with unanimous approval of two motions. One directed staff to prepare a study on how the state’s actions impact Kern’s economy and the county budget.
The other authorized County Supervisor Zack Scrivner and board Chairwoman Leticia Perez to form a coalition that would go to Sacramento and share with officials there what effects California’s oil policies are having locally.
County supervisors spent close to two hours quizzing three state officials on the wisdom and details of a recent permitting slowdown that has limited oilfield activity and led at least one Bakersfield oil producer to announce cutbacks expected to cost about 90 local jobs.
They and industry leaders made the case that cutting in-state oil production, or simply injecting regulatory uncertainty, not only hurts local families but makes California more dependent on imports from countries with fewer health and safety protections and troubling human-rights records.
Scrivner noted that the county's own regulatory overhaul in 2015 has directed $85 million toward programs designed to offset harmful emissions.
"No one has done more than this industry to clean the air in the valley,” he said, adding that Kern County continues to lead the state in renewable energy production.
"Sacramento needs to ask us how to do it, not tell us how,” he said.
The three Newsom administration officials responded by defending the regulatory changes as necessary reform inspired, in part, by the state's largest-ever oil spill last year in the McKittrick area.
The state officials invited county representatives to participate in preparing for an inevitable economic transition they said would take into account the county's dependence on oil production.
Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the recently appointed state oil and gas supervisor, said the state's permitting slowdown reflects an effort by Sacramento to increase regulatory compliance and promote greater health and safety.
"We are listening, we are building relationships and we are being transparent about our actions,” Ntuk said, promising a "thoughtful and measured approach" toward the state's goal of achieving "carbon neutrality" by 2045.
The other two state officials who took supervisors' questions Jan. 14 were Anthony Williams, Gov. Gavin Newsom's legislative affairs secretary, and David Shabazian, director of the state Department of Conservation.
Oil industry supporters showed up by the hundreds, many wearing "I Am the Oil Industry" stickers. Some held handmade signs with slogans such as "Make oil not war" and "Gavin Sucks Arabian Crude."
Prior to the board meeting, some two dozen environmental justice advocates gathered for a news conference outside the county administrative headquarters on Truxtun Avenue. Many held signs in English or Spanish with slogans such as "Safe environment for our and your children" and "Health for all."
One of several speakers at the event, Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, accused the oil industry of presenting a "false narrative" about the need to choose between a healthy environment and a prosperous economy.
"We can have both," she said.
Others at the news conference, noting that Kern's volume of oil production has declined naturally for many years, called on state government to help fund Kern's move away from petroleum dependence.
"We must embrace the transition to renewable energy," Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola said.
The meeting was the first step in a process authorized last month when the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to invite the local oil industry to come make a public presentation about the impacts of new oil regulations.
The board's resolution also called on county staff to organize a coalition to tell Sacramento about the industry's local importance and consider declaring an "economic crisis" if facts support it.
Since taking office, Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken steps the industry interprets as anti-oil. In June he set aside $1.5 million in the state budget to fund a study to find ways of reducing California's petroleum supply and demand.
The next month, the governor fired the state's top oil regulator after environmental activists reported a spike in state permits for the controversial oilfield technique known as fracking. Newsom also pointed to findings that senior oil regulators owned stock in petroleum companies they oversee.
In November, the administration cited the state's goal of achieving "carbon neutrality" by 2045 when it imposed extra layers of permitting scrutiny for the well-stimulation technique known as fracking and placed a temporary ban on high-pressure steam injections. Both processes have been commonly used in Kern County.
The administration further stated that within about the next 11 months it wants to establish a statewide standard for creating buffer zones between petroleum production facilities and environmentally sensitive sites such as homes and schools.
Environmental justice advocates have long called for such a rule, pointing to studies showing that people who live near oil production sites suffer disproportionately from respiratory and other serious health problems. Some in the industry deny there is any relationship between health and proximity to oil production.
Already Newsom's actions have had economic impact in Kern. In California, Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC announced it had downsized its 2020 drilling plans because of the governor's regulatory crackdown, saying it would make use of five rigs instead of the six it had planned. The company's move is expected to eliminate about 90 jobs that would have been provided by local oilfield contractors.
Oil is considered the most important industry in Kern, which is responsible for about 80 percent of the petroleum produced in California.
The industry directly employs 14,213 people in the county and supports another 9,687 jobs indirectly, according to a recent, industry-funded study by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. The study found Kern oil production generates $925 million in state and local oil revenues per year and $1.6 billion in labor income.
Oil companies argue that reducing in-state production increases California's reliance on foreign sources, which rely on dirty bunker fuel to transport petroleum to the state.
They also say the state has the toughest oil regulations in the country, if not the world, and that cutting output in California means oil will be produced somewhere else where environmental harm will be greater.