In California, we like to think of ourselves as being on clean energy’s cutting edge. We drive more electric vehicles, generate more electricity from solar power, and our legislators have pushed forward innovative policies that have become a model not just in the U.S., but around the world.
Yet, hidden beneath this green image is a dirty secret: California is the third-largest oil-extracting state in the country, and the majority of that oil comes from where I call home, Kern County. Just two hours from Los Angeles, Kern is home to more than 70 percent of the oil produced in California and 95 percent of the fracking. More than 290,000 people here live within a mile of an oil or gas well.
Communities of color are among those most affected. Of those who live within a mile of a well and in a neighborhood affected by high levels of pollution, 64 percent are Latino and 75 percent are people of color. It often feels as if you cannot step out the door without seeing a field filled with drilling and fracking rigs.
Half of Kern’s school-age children who were interviewed in health studies suffer from headaches and nosebleeds, and nearly half of adults have inhalers – a common sight in a county that often tops the American Lung Association’s list of worst air pollution in the country. This is what California has allowed Kern County to become – and it is only going to get worse if Big Oil has its way.
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Last month, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a zoning change that would allow the oil and gas industry to double the number of wells over the next 20-plus years with zero opportunities to further review the impact to our public health or environment.
But the time has come for Kern’s residents to fight back. This month, a coalition of conservation and community groups filed a lawsuit against the county to stop this zoning change.
California continues to be a leader on climate with actions such as the passage of SB 350 by the Legislature, which seeks to increase our renewable energy mix to 50 percent and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings. Recently, San Diego committed to move off fossil fuels entirely in the next 20 years.
But leading on climate means leading across the state.
That our Legislature and state agencies can allow my home to give Big Oil free rein for at least two decades with minimal oversight or accountability is embarrassing and shameful. It’s an injustice to the hundreds of thousands of residents in our community who deserve to have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and a healthy environment to raise their families.
This sort of backward thinking runs counter to the progress that California has made moving beyond dirty fuels, threatening not only our ability to meet our state’s ambitious climate goals, but also the trust our residents place in elected officials and government agencies to create healthy and livable communities.
We are blessed to have bold local activists and residents in Kern County standing up to Big Oil and county officials who want to rubber stamp its proposals with no questions asked. But for true change to come to Kern – and to California as a whole – we need leadership across the state. For when it comes to oil, as goes Kern, so goes California.
Rosanna Esparza is a community organizer with Clean Water Action and a volunteer leader with the Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club.