On Monday, global oil prices dropped to the lowest level in three decades as a result of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and reduced demand for oil globally. As the oil industry protects its bottom line during this price plunge, oil industry workers are at risk of losing their jobs. It’s happened before. In 2014, when oil prices plunged, the oil industry cut nearly 22,000 jobs in California, leaving Kern County families out to dry with no backup plans for their financial future.
I remember sitting in my college classes in Bakersfield College in 2014, listening to peers question their petroleum engineering majors, wondering if their degree would lead them into a dying oil industry. They were planning their futures on a job market that was disappearing in Kern County.
My friend Ruben Rodriguez, who was already working in the oil fields at the time, also worried about whether he would have a future in oil. When he saw the recent price dip on Monday, Ruben was worried about a repeat of the job losses of 2014. “You had to pick up any job that got offered to you. There was no place to go for help if you needed it. People question their loyalty to oil and gas when you see how fast workers lose jobs,” Ruben told me.
As oil industry workers and their families brace for local impacts of this recent price dive, Kern County’s reliance on the oil industry is a dangerous liability for the economic and public health of our region.
This nose-dive in oil prices is not the only sign of deeper turmoil for the industry. Several omens mark the impending doom of Big Oil — the world’s largest investors have already signaled they are “done with fossil fuels.” For the first time, a majority of Americans said the United States should prioritize alternative energy — such as wind and solar — over fossil fuels. Last November, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the need to “phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources.” Clearly, this price free fall is one volatile moment in a greater downward trend for California’s oil industry, making it an unsafe investment for Kern County’s future.
Whether the oil industry declines because of decreasing demand, manipulated prices, or capital divestment, its decline is inevitable. If we don’t start planning for the industry’s failure now, I am fearful for the future of our economy, our workers, and our communities.
Gov. Newsom and the California Geological Energy Management Division must ensure the oil industry’s decline and the transition to clean energy benefits workers and communities in Kern County.
Planning a future beyond the oil industry is about bringing investment to Kern’s workers and its youth. We can also create more diverse and fulfilling future careers for current workers and young Kern residents—who currently feel trapped into career paths in an industry bound for failure. A good transition plan can bring Kern youth the opportunities to pursue our dream careers and secure futures, free from the boom-and-bust of a volatile market. That can only start when we stop catering to an oil industry that doesn’t offer Kern County workers or youth a viable future.
As my friend Ruben, who is now a community organizer in Coalinga, put it: “Coalinga felt like a ghost town in 2014—I don’t want that for my community again. We shouldn’t depend on any industry that much. We deserve more options.”
Allowing the oil industry to dominate our local economy leaves with very few other high-paying jobs available to Kern County residents. This leaves us all vulnerable to global volatility in the short term, and to the inevitable decline of fossil fuels in the long term.
Gov. Newsom has a responsibility to put forward a workforce development and transition plan for the inevitable: the end of oil production in California. Waiting until the industry is on its deathbed means we are too late; our workers and communities will be left behind. We have a window of opportunity to ensure Kern County workers can continue to support their families with healthy, good-paying jobs. It’s time to plan for a future for Kern County beyond oil.
Cesar Aguirre is a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network and works in rural communities.