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'Just transition' advocates revisit anti-oil campaign after key defeat in Sacramento

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Californian file photo of the Kern River Oil Field.

Environmental-justice advocates, regrouping after a big defeat last week in the state Legislature, strategized a path forward Wednesday in their campaign for a "just transition" away from oil production in Kern County.

Participants representing local and state environmental-justice groups suggested ways to win over labor unions, counter information from the oil industry and work within initiatives like the B3K local economic development collaboration to identify new jobs for people who will be laid off if the anti-oil campaign succeeds.

The session essentially called for redoubling efforts following the defeat seven days earlier of state Senate Bill 467, which would have banned fracking and other important oilfield techniques while also establishing nearly half-mile buffer zones around industry operating sites.

The executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, Catherine Garoupa White, asserted petroleum production is unsustainable to begin with. She highlighted the region's oil-related emissions and small-producer exemptions she said belie California's reputation for having a highly regulated oil industry.

In a reference to what some of the speakers acknowledge was a difficult task ahead, she said, "While there are no silver bullets, the transition (away from oil production) is already underway."

PUTTING PRESSURE

California environmental-justice groups have worked closely with climate advocates to try to persuade Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers to toughen oilfield regulations or, increasingly, shut down production ahead of the state's goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.

The oil industry contends such efforts will only drive jobs and money to countries with lower environmental and labor standards than exist in California, which must import crude it cannot produce because no oil pipelines traverse the Rocky Mountains.

SB 647, a response to Newsom's call last fall for anti-fracking legislation, exceeded his request and wound up under attack by organized labor and politicians worried about the job impacts.

Participants in Wednesday's virtual meeting addressed both of those factors.

UNION HELP

Tracey Brieger, campaign director with Jobs with Justice San Francisco, emphasized the importance of a well-funded transition away from oil production that ensures new, high-quality union jobs.

There will have to be guaranteed income at current levels for workers being retrained for alternative work, and pensions for those approaching retirement. Seniority must be preserved and labor solidarity respected, she said.

Organized labor is not a monolith, she said, encouraging environmental-justice groups to make their case to individual unions.

"Transition is inevitable but justice is not," she said. "Workers need to be involved in these decisions."

DIFFERENT WORK

Just as Brieger suggested new jobs in energy efficiency and climate change-related health care, Ingrid Brostrom spoke of potential new jobs in environmental remediation, not just in orphaned oil wells but at contaminated industrial sites statewide.

The assistant director of the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment pointed as well at what she said were the oil industry's overstated claims of oilfield employment totals and financial impacts on local government revenues.

She acknowledged both are substantial but said industry employment estimates include gas-station jobs and other marginally related positions, showing oil payrolls are "not insignificant but they're not insurmountable."

While counties like Kern rely heavily on oil taxes, she noted, that dependence needed to end anyway because plunging barrel prices in effect deprive local public services of steady funding.

WORKING TOGETHER

A committee member of B3K, short for Better Bakersfield & Boundless Kern, Brostrom said environmental justice has much in common with economic justice and that such broad-based initiatives will be critical to creating new jobs to take the place of those lost in local oilfields.

"The state has benefited on the backs of residents in Kern County and there is a great debt owed to the region," she said.

No mention was made Wednesday of renewable fuels such as biomethane and renewable diesel, both emerging local job creators that make use of existing oil industry expertise and infrastructure. While local policymakers see a bright future in such products, which can add up to be carbon negative, some environmental activists oppose fuels that result of emissions of any kind.

HOW MUCH?

Almost left unspoken was the price tag of the just transition.

Toward the end an online participant asked the group how much the transition will cost. When none of the speakers stepped up with a response during an awkward silence, facilitator Sacramento City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela offered a reply.

"A lot of that depends what the transition is," she said, adding there are many options. Hopefully some federal pandemic recovery money can be used to "jumpstart some of these economic solutions," she said.