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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

Newsom boosts clean energy at Bakersfield summit, earns cold greeting from struggling Kern County

Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a surprise visit to the California Economic Summit in Bakersfield on Oct. 28, 2022.
Rich Forrester
Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during a surprise visit to the California Economic Summit in Bakersfield on Oct. 28, 2022.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made a surprise stop at the California Economic Summit in Bakersfield on Friday, capping off a week that saw long-simmering tensions between Republican-dominated Kern County and the state’s Democratic leader boil over.

The annual summit sets fiscal priorities and goals for the state and is hosted in a different city each year. Former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin co-chairs California Forward, the nonprofit that organizes the event, and led a brief discussion with Newsom at the Mechanics Bank Convention Center.

Newsom doubled down on the state’s legislature-approved commitment to eliminate fossil fuels production by 2045. He said the ambitious goal would not be possible without Kern County, which produces roughly two-thirds of the state’s oil and 60% of its green energy.

“This county, this community; you’re dominating. You’re proving the paradigm,” Newsom said of Kern and the state’s clean-energy transition.

But Newsom’s optimism doesn’t jibe with county leaders, who say the state’s energy policies amount to an assault on Kern’s economy, which is disproportionately tied to petroleum production.

“As a result of flawed and misguided state policies, the county is expected to lose a substantial amount of revenue, resulting in massive budget cuts to essential county programs and services,” County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop wrote in a letter to organizers ahead of the summit.

The situation has forced the Kern County Board of Supervisors to push for the approval of Measure K, a proposed one-cent sales tax on the November ballot.

Workers install a solar farm outside Sacramento, Calif. The state aims to attain half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Sacramento Municipal Utility District
Workers install a solar farm outside Sacramento, Calif. The state aims to attain half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

On the summit stage, Newsom touted a number of investments – totalling some $600 million – he says the state is making to boost green jobs across the Valley. He suggested that new, state-led efforts to plug more than 30,000 abandoned oil wells may be another source of jobs. Many of those wells are located in Kern and have caused dangerous leaking in residential neighborhoods.

He attributed California’s projected overtaking of Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy to the state’s renewables sector, largely headquartered in Kern County. He said the transition is necessary to curb the effects of a warming climate amid intensifying wildfires and worsening drought.

But Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Bakersfield native, chastised Newsom for his perceived “demonization of the oil industry.”

“When the governor attacks domestic oil production, he is attacking the people of this county, [and] taking away good-paying jobs,” he said.

Fong pointed to a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll that found the majority of Central Valley residents believe the state is headed in the wrong direction compared to 48% of Californians overall.

“The governor’s words cannot deflect from the real world consequences of his policies — gasoline and energy prices are rising, foreign reliance on oil increasing, farmland going fallow and food prices skyrocketing,” the assemblyman said.

But Newsom, speaking in a county that overwhelmingly voted to oust him during last year’s failed gubernatorial recall, remained steadfast in his support for California’s “overlooked” inland.

“I come back over and over again … to make the case that you matter, and we have a responsibility to this dynamic and extraordinary part of our state,” he said.

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
Grapes were Kern County's top crop in 2021. The county recently surpassed Fresno as the nation's No. 1 farm economy.

Beyond energy, the Valley’s massive agriculture industry – with Kern County recently surpassing Fresno as the nation’s No. 1 farm economy – took center stage.

United Farm Workers leader Connie Perez-Andreesen emphasized Kern County’s history as the birthplace of the farm labor movement.

“It’s important that the California Economic Summit should be here near the farmworker communities that are the true backbone of American ag and California’s economy,” she said during the event’s opening ceremony.

She added the state still has a ways to go to combat inequality and uplift the poorest Californians.

“California is now the fourth-largest economy in the world, but it does not always feel that way in Kern County,” she said.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.