Another chunk of Kern County's economy — natural gas production — has come under threat from California's efforts to "decarbonize" buildings across the state as a way of helping achieve Sacramento's greenhouse-gas reduction goals.
A proposal being reviewed by the California Public Utilities Commission is aimed at identifying projects that would replace natural gas-fired appliances in homes and businesses with strictly electric-powered equipment.
The idea, based on a pair of laws signed in 2018 by former Gov. Jerry Brown, is to support California's intention to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
Kern County politicians and industry have argued against the plan, saying that scaling back the use of natural gas would raise energy costs for businesses and consumers, especially those in the Central Valley.
Instead, they contend the state would be better served by diversifying its energy portfolio, which they maintain would make California more resilient and bolster the reliability of its power supply.
The question of whether to dial back California's use of natural gas adds fuel to a heated policy debate with major implications for Kern's economy.
The county produced 70 percent of the state's domestically produced natural gas in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. A lot of that gas was associated with oil production, which supports at least 10,000 local jobs directly and many thousands more indirectly.
Environmentalists alarmed by dire climate-change projections have ramped up calls for shutting down petroleum production statewide.
The person with the most sway over the issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom, has thrown his support behind moving California away from its dependence on petroleum. But he has also expressed a desire to carry out that process thoughtfully, with special consideration for communities like Kern whose economies would be upended by an abrupt end to oil and natural gas production.
Supporters of decarbonizing California buildings, including CPUC President Michael Picker, note that a quarter of the state's greenhouse-gas emissions result from burning natural gas in homes and other structures.
They calculate that moving to 100-percent renewable electricity alone won't be enough to meet the state's climate-change goals.
"We must also electrify our homes & buildings to reduce fossil fuel usage," Commissioner Picker tweeted in April.
On the other side of the argument are data showing inland California's energy costs are much higher than they are on the coast. This suggests Central Valley communities reliant on air-conditioning to cool their homes during hot months could suffer disproportionately from any program that raises energy costs.
Opponents of decarbonization further note California is so dependent on natural gas that the state imported 10 times the amount of natural gas it produced in 2017.
Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, emphasized in a telephone interview last week that the state has already invested in dairy-based renewable natural gas and so scaling back its use contradicts existing policy.
He also pointed out equipment that runs on natural gas still works during power outages, which because of wildfires are expected to become more frequent in the state.
"We need to provide more options, options that make energy bills more affordable for people, not more expensive," Salas said.
ALL OF THE ABOVE
Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, also opposes decarbonization on the basis of affordability. Like Salas, he said the state should adopt an all-of-the-above approach to energy, as already happens in Kern.
"Kern County is the model for how we should approach energy in this state — we produce petroleum, natural gas, wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables — and all are a part of providing reliable and affordable energy to a state that has incredibly high energy demands," Fong said in an emailed statement.
Several environmental activist groups did not respond to requests for comment.
An example of a community moving forward with decarbonization is Berkeley. In July of 2017, the city became the first city in the state to ban the installation of natural gas pipes in most new buildings.
Members of Berkeley's City Council were told electricity entails far less carbon emissions than natural gas. Estimates they considered held that natural gas accounted for more than a quarter of the city's greenhouse-gas emissions, and that for just Berkeley's building sector, the share rises to 73 percent.
The leading producer of natural gas in Kern County, Chatsworth-based California Resources Corp., emphasized in an email that pilot projects under consideration by the CPUC and the California Energy Commission are still in early planning stages. As these initiatives progress, the company said, it will be important for the process to take into account energy affordability, reliability and resilience against power outages and natural disasters.
The company noted that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently chose to move carefully on a plan to require the use of electrical appliances instead of natural gas equipment in new buildings. Of particular concern to the board, CRC pointed out, was the potential for "natural disasters, international turmoil, power outages, cyber-attacks, transportation disruptions and price spikes."
CRC also emphasized that natural gas provides 40 percent of the state's energy portfolio and a third of its supply of electricity.
"No alternatives are currently available that provide the same amount of energy as natural gas with the same affordability," the company stated.