In a clear threat to one of Kern County's economic pillars, California took a tentative first step toward cutting in-state oil and gas production with Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature last week on a budget that includes $1.5 million for finding ways to reduce petroleum supply and demand.
The budget bill signals Newsom may take a more aggressively anti-oil approach than did his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown. Recent state initiatives have set ambitious goals for weaning California off oil and gas, but despite pleas from environmental activists, none have directly limited production.
The bill's language suggests the administration wants to tread lightly on places like Kern that rely on oil production for jobs and tax support, saying the study should identify ways to manage "the decline of fossil fuel use in a way that is economically responsible and sustainable." Workforce training and enhanced economic diversification programs are among Sacramento's ideas for accomplishing those goals.
Environmental activist groups welcomed the budget item as potentially leading to climate change protections and help for communities they say suffer physical harm from living near petroleum production. Others urged Newsom to take more immediate steps to curtail oil production in the state.
"It’s good that Governor Newsom is interested in doing a study on how to move the state off of fossil fuels. It is important, and it should happen," Alexandra Nagy, California director at Food & Water Watch, said in a news release. "But it also should not be a reason to delay action now on several things that Governor Newsom has the power to do right now."
The Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group's suggestions include an immediate moratorium on new oil and gas permits; a ban on the oilfield technique known as "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing; and a 2,500-foot buffer between oilfield activities and sensitive sites such as schools and homes.
California's oil industry reacted Monday with a mild rebuke of Newsom's budget item. The Western States Petroleum Association, a leading oil trade group, said by email renewable energy alone cannot meet the state's needs and that the poor have the most to lose from policies that raise fuel prices and limit choices.
"Rather than studying potentially one-sided solutions, what we should be asking ourselves is, 'How can we best balance the equally important needs of equality, environment, economy and a truly sustainable energy future?'" WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd wrote.
Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, also criticized the budget directive, saying efforts to "eradicate" the state's oil and gas industry will raise costs on food, services, utilities and fuel. He said California should instead look for ways to support all kinds of energy production.
"Every Californian must understand the need for reliable and affordable energy supply to power our entire economy and state," Fong said by email. "In addition, petroleum products are also used in life-saving medical equipment, our smartphones and almost all of our modern technology. As our state faces an affordability crisis, reducing energy supply will only drive up costs for energy statewide."
According to the budget bill Newsom signed Thursday, the University of California will be hired to produce the study. The California Environmental Protection Agency was directed to determine the study's scope in coordination with the state's Natural Resources Agency, Transportation Agency, Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and Office of Planning and Research.
While the scoping process is not expected to take more than a month, officials at several state offices were unable to say Monday when the study itself is likely to be released.
The budget states the study's goals will be "to evaluate pathways to achieve a carbon neutral economy by 2045, manage the decline of in-state production as the state’s fossil fuel demand decreases, and assess potential impacts to disadvantaged and low-income communities and strategies to address those impacts."
A spokesperson for the state Department of Finance said the study will also look at:
• economic impacts of transitioning California to a carbon-neutral economy;
• potential costs of reducing access to affordable fuel and energy; and,
• ways of providing "workforce and economic development for workers, businesses and communities in regions currently dependent on high-carbon industries, to support these areas in economic diversification and worker training options."
California's oil industry has been watching for signs of what approach Newsom will take with regard to oil.
Former Gov. Brown won favor in the eyes of many environmentalists by working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and signing the state's first law regulating fracking, which some activists contend puts air and groundwater quality at risk.
But despite a slew of new regulations on the oil industry and a crackdown on wastewater disposal methods, many activists have pushed hard in recent years to ban some oilfield practices altogether. Some have called for shutting down California oil production altogether.
The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity noted the budget provision marks the first time California has moved to cut petroleum production.
"Gov. Newsom is laying the groundwork for confronting the state's massive dirty oil problem," Kassie Siegel, director of the CBD's Climate Law Institute, said in a news release. "In order to respond to the climate emergency, protect public health and lead on environmental justice, he must tackle oil extraction."