In California, communities are battling the last gasp of big oil

  • Published on March 29th, 2021

The climate crisis has already come to Kern County. In August, when wildfires raged across California, the county was choked with smoke, resulting in the worst air quality the region had seen in years—in a county where the air is regularly so unhealthy that it earns an F rating from the American Lung Association.

END oil drilling in California residential neighborhoods (Photo courtesy of the United Domestic Workers of America)
END oil drilling in California residential neighborhoods (Photo courtesy of the United Domestic Workers of America)

By Michael Brune
Sierra Club

Kern residents experience the “slow violence” of the fossil fuel industry every day, not just during wildfire season. About 80% of California’s oil and gas production happens in Kern County. Those living amid its 78,000 oil and gas wells are exposed to a noxious mix of pollutants that can cause asthma, cancers, pregnancy complications, and preterm births, as well as increase the risk of dying from COVID-19. More than a third of Kern’s kids have asthma, double the California average.

Fossil fuel pollution affects nearly every corner of Kern County, but some residents experience more of its harms. People of color, especially those in low-income communities, are disproportionately likely to live near oil and gas wells and their toxic emissions. In California, nearly 92 percent of those living within a mile and a half of oil and gas drilling are people of color whose neighborhoods are already heavily burdened by pollution.

In a marathon eleven-hour hearing on March 8, Kern residents and environmental advocates testified about the damage caused by the oil and gas industry. Before the hearing had even started, our coalition had sent over 7,000 comments opposing further drilling to the Kern Board of Supervisors.

And yet, the supervisors spent just minutes deliberating before voting to greenlight permits for tens of thousands of new oil and gas wells—none of which would require further environmental review before being drilled near the places Kern families live, work, and play. Just months after Texas was slammed by a rare and devastating polar vortex, the Gulf Coast experienced a record hurricane season, and homes burned across California, the Kern supervisors voted to double oil and gas drilling in the county.

The Sierra Club and our allies are not done fighting for the communities across California that are most exposed to fossil fuel pollution and hit hardest by the climate disasters the industry causes. We are filing a lawsuit to overturn the Kern oil and gas ordinance, as well as urging California regulators and legislators to institute protective setbacks between wells and sensitive sites.

Ultimately, we must transition toward a 100 percent clean energy economy, while investing in creating secure, family-sustaining jobs in communities once dependent on oil and gas. As we build the power we need to make that a reality, we are calling on California legislators to take the common sense safety measure of instituting 2,500-foot protective setbacks between drilling and schools, homes, hospitals, and other sensitive sites.

These setbacks would mitigate the impact of the drilling on the health of millions of Californians who live near operational wells, including the one-in-three Kern residents who live within one mile of a well.

Neighboring Ventura County has shown leadership the entire state should follow by mandating 2,500-foot setbacks from wells to schools and 1,500-foot setbacks from wells to homes.

Plus, over a dozen states already use setbacks to protect their residents, including major oil-and-gas producing states like Texas and Colorado. Join us in demanding that California legislators follow suit, and put our health and safety before fossil fuel industry profits.

Californians: Urge Your Senator to Support SB467 to Phase Out Dangerous Oil and Gas Production in California

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