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The Kern County Planning Commission Votes In Favor Of Gas and Oil Ordinance Despite Public Outcry

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

After hearing more than 100 public comments, the Kern County Planning Commission voted Friday to pass the recommendation for a proposed oil and gas ordinance that would allow the permitting of up to 40,000 new oil and gas wells over the next 20 years.


Representatives from the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the League of United Latin American Citizens spoke in favor of the ordinance citing jobs for Latinx community members as a top reason. 


But the majority of the comments voiced concern over the new ordinance. 


“We don’t need COVID to kill us because the pollutants from wells are doing this everyday for 100 years,” resident Annebel Marquez from Shafter said. There are 300 existing wells in Shafter. 


A day before the meeting commenced, community advocates delivered a petition with more than 7,000 signatures to the planning commission. The petition opposes expanded oil and gas drilling in the county.


At a press conference over Zoom, prior to the planning commission's review of the ordinance, Elizabeth Perez with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said she’s worried about the impact on low-income communities.


“Oil and gas drilling leaks methane known to be a climate change accelerator,” she said. “California faces historic wildfires and prolonged drought. This expansion of the fossil fuels extraction will send exactly the wrong signal about how the state should approach climate change.”  


But county officials argue the revisions to Kern County’s Zoning Ordinance reestablish zone permitting to include environmental protections for the health and safety of communities in Kern County.


“Until 2015 there was actually no permit required for the oil and gas or pipeline activities in the unincorporated county,” Kern County Community Development Director Lorelei Oviatt said at the planning commission’s meeting, which started on Thursday and reconvened on Friday. 


After an oil and gas ordinance passed in 2015, she said, the California Geological Energy Management Division issued the permits for oil and gas drilling. 


 “So of the 2.3 million acres in the valley of Kern County, 596,000 acres are established oil fields and there is no local permitting oversight in that,” Oviatt said. The ordinance, she said, would provide local oversight and will charge oil companies for their use of groundwater that will go to a Kern County fund for disadvantaged communities. 


Still, many public commenters shared the sentiment that the county should move away from fossil fuel expansion all together. 


Delano Mayor Brian Osorio said underserved communities don’t need any more pollutants. During the pandemic he said he’s volunteered at over 20 food distributions in the town. He said low income communities are being hit hard already. 


“And I can only imagine how this oil and gas ordinance, if this ordinance were to pass, will be another obstacle for communities,” he said. 


In 2020 the American Lung AssociationrankedBakersfield number 1 for particle pollution out of 204 metropolitan areas, third for high ozone days out of 229 metropolitan areas, and second for 24-hour particle pollution out of 216 metropolitan areas in the nation. 


Clinical gerontologist Rosanna Esparza is a resident of Kern County. Esparza said she’s lost 43 friends, including her husband, to COVID-19, valley fever and other respiratory illnesses over the years.   


“This is personal,” she said. “We who live in the community may have chronic problems, we may have diabetes, we may have obstructive pulmonary disease, but it's exacerbated by our exposure to the type of chemicals used in the production and lack of knowledge from our elected officials.” 


Commissioner Gregory McGiffney, who voted in favor of the recommendations, disputed comments like Esparza’s stating these recommendations take into consideration the public health of Kern County communities. He added, more drilling would not take place if the demand for it did not increase. 


Even celebrities are involved in the opposition. In a video, actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk in The Avengers saga, urged the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the planning commission to reconsider green-lighting the ordinance.  


“The terrible public health impacts of asthma, high risk pregnancy, and cancer from the pollution caused by existing wells cannot be kicked under the rug,” he said. “It’s pretty simple, adding more wells to the mix further endangers Kern River communities, particularly marginalized communities of color.” 


Kern County is home to 839,631 residents. Of those residents, 71,506 live within 2,500 feet of oil and gas wells; 43% of them are Hispanic, according to data from FracTracker.


The recommendation will now go to the Kern County Board of Supervisors for consideration.  

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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