When the Arvin City Council began working on an ordinance that would place restrictions on new oil and gas operations near neighborhoods in Arvin, the local oil industry began to get a little nervous.
On Tuesday night, the council voted 3-0 (with two members absent) in support of the ordinance that will create expanded buffer zones between new oil and gas operations and "sensitive use" locations such as homes, parks, schools and hospitals.
But the ordinance, which essentially leaves existing operations alone, is not the central concern for oil interests. They're more worried that the restrictions — and the public attitudes behind them — might spread.
The local industry opposed the Arvin measure, in large part because of the precedent it sets in the heart of California petroleum production, said Bakersfield City Councilman Willie Rivera, a spokesman for the trade group California Independent Petroleum Association.
The concern, he said, is that the ordinance's passage in Arvin could embolden environmental justice activists to push for similar restrictions on oil production elsewhere in Kern County, particularly the oil-rich cities of Shafter and Wasco.
"Every notch in (activists') belt, I think, empowers them to keep biting off more, and that concerns me," Rivera said.
Indeed, attitudes in Arvin may have begun to change when residents were directly affected by oil operations in the small farm town.
In 2014, Arvin became a focus of anti-petroleum activism after a leaky gas line tied to nearby oil production forced the evacuation of three dozen city residents that year. Eight houses on Nelson Court were found to have contained highly explosive levels of petroleum gas.
It turned out state oil regulators had not inspected the line because they were not responsible for checking on pipes as small as the leaky one in Arvin. That regulatory gap was addressed earlier this year with the unveiling of new rules spawned by legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.
The regulations, set to take effect Oct. 1, call for yearly inspections of all active gas pipelines near homes and other occupied buildings. Among other measures, the new rules require oil and gas companies to file plans with the state containing pipeline location information and addressing associated risks.
In February 2016, the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, imposed a $75,000 fine on the owner and operator of the pipeline and several oil and gas wells in Arvin.
But was it too little, too late for Arvin's predominantly Latino residents who already had long been impacted by serious air quality problems at the southern terminus of the San Joaquin Valley?
"It took months for them to find a solution," said Gustavo Aguirre, coordinator for the Arvin Air Quality Project, which last year installed the six electronic air quality monitors in locations around Arvin, including near oil installations.
"It really woke up local residents," he said of the pipeline debacle. "Government was not really working to protect the health and safety of the public."
Even California Attorney General Xavier Becerra weighed in on Tuesday night's action by the Arvin City Council.
“For far too long, Arvin ... has had to bear significant pollution burdens. Thanks to the important ordinance passed by the City Council, that unfortunate reality will begin to change,” Becerra said in a statement Wednesday.
"The California Department of Justice supported Arvin's right to protect its residents' health and safety by prohibiting oil and gas sites in residential and other sensitive areas, and by establishing buffers for homes, schools, and hospitals. We now offer our congratulations for this momentous public health victory."
At Tuesday night's council meeting, Tracy Leach, executive director of Kern Citizens for Energy, a pro-energy coalition supported by oil and gas interests, used the word "ban" in her public comments.
“Rather than ban an industry that 40 million Californians depend on, we encourage you to educate yourself on all that energy adds to our lives,” Leach said at the meeting, according to Citizens for Energy's Twitter page.
The new ordinance will:
• Prohibit the location of new oil and gas sites within the city’s residential, mixed-use, commercial and open space zones;
• Require new oil and gas sites to be located more than 300 feet from residences, schools, hospitals and parks;
• Ban expansion of existing uses in residential and other sensitive use areas.
• Prohibit new operations within 600 feet of sensitive uses unless they can comply with a variety of requirements, including an odor minimization plan, air monitoring plan, community alert system, quiet mode operations plan, lighting and glare analysis, etc.