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Workshop looks at ways of managing the decline of California's oil industry

Local environmental activists sat down with Bakersfield oil company representatives Wednesday for a civil discussion about California's goal of managing the decline of the state's petroleum industry.

The evening meeting, which drew about 100 people to Bakersfield College's Norman Levan Center for a two-hour public workshop, elicited thoughtful conversation about what state officials ought to take into account while planning to achieve a "carbon-neutral" economy statewide by 2045.

After getting off to a slow start as participants raised questions about the wisdom of even attempting such a transition, the gathering settled into small-group brainstorming sessions in English and Spanish.

The workshop was the second in a series of meetings hosted by the California Environmental Protection Agency in cooperation with other state agencies charged with helping set the parameters for a pair of studies expected to be released by the end of 2020.

One of the studies is intended to identify ways to cut vehicle emissions. The other, considerably more controversial in the heart of California oil country, is supposed to come up with strategies for reducing the state's demand and supply of fossil fuels. Each was funded by state cap-and-trade revenues at a cost of $1.5 million.

Although not everyone stayed for the full meeting, people who showed up for the start came from diverse constituencies: utilities, universities, organizations for or against petroleum production, local government and political offices, environmental justice groups, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno and local residents.

"We're asking you to help us design (the studies)," Kate Gordon, director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, told the group near the start of the meeting. She said one goal was to make sure the state's transition away from oil "really does not leave anyone behind."

There was plenty of skepticism Wednesday that such a feat could be accomplished, considering the petroleum industry directly employs more than 14,000 people in Kern alone, according to a recent study. Some asserted that job-training would become necessary to help cushion the economic blow.

During the course of several simultaneous discussions, participants offered comments on a broad range of concerns, from California's dependence on foreign oil and the limitations of existing electric-vehicle technology to impacts on local agriculture and the benefits of using rooftop solar panels to provide power for personal consumption.

People on opposite ends of the debate came close to agreeing on one particular point near the end of Wednesday's meeting: that the workshop's questions were not closely tailored to conditions in Kern County.

"I don't think one size fits all," said Shafter air-quality advocate and oil industry critic Tom Franz. He said he was disappointed that Wednesday's central questionnaires were not customized to Central Valley concerns.

Bakersfield businessman Bob Burdette, who raised concerns about the initiative's economic side-effects, including on his own investment properties, thought some of the questions up for discussion were a little silly and might have been designed to keep participants from asking too many questions of their own.

"I think they're doing this so we don't get to the … problem" of potential negative impacts on Kern, he said.

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