This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from Future Human exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.
On the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, it doesn’t take much effort to stumble upon an oil or gas well.
“You don’t have to drive far, especially once you get out into those rural areas,” Julie Solis, who lives in the city, tells Future Human. “The rural communities are really where they’re getting hit the hardest.”
Two of Solis’ four children attend school at Bakersfield College, which is on the edge of town. Right across the street is the massive Kern River Oil Field, where there are active oil and gas wells less than a mile away. Kern County, like many places in liberal, climate action-friendly California, is a hotbed for oil and gas drilling, with over 35,000 active oil and gas wells, according to 2019 data from The FracTracker Alliance, a watchdog nonprofit that monitors the activities of the oil and gas industry.
Downtown Bakersfield, where Solis lives, is still surrounded by oil and gas wells, even though she doesn’t live immediately next to them. There are active gas and oil wells less than a five-mile drive in any direction from Solis’ neighborhood.
“No matter where you live, if there’s not one directly next to you, it’s where you go to school, it’s where you go to work, it’s where you go to for your [religious] services,” Solis says. “So it doesn’t directly have to be in my backyard. It’s still in our yard.”
According to a June 2020 study from environmental scientists and public health researchers at the University of the California, Berkeley, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University, living near oil and gas wells has been linked to low birth weight, preterm birth, and babies that are small for their age. And separate findings from public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University revealed that higher likelihood of asthma attacks is linked to living near gas wells. These revelations about the health impacts of living near oil and gas wells come at a time where the global effects of the use of oil and gas on climate change are becoming starker by the day and growing numbers of people are advocating for a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“It doesn’t directly have to be in my backyard. It’s still in our yard.”
Despite this, Kern County officials are currently considering approving over 67,000 new permits for oil and gas drilling in the county. This minor fossil fuel boom in Kern County exposes hypocrisy that has long existed in California: Months before Joe Biden and his newly appointed climate czar John Kerry began referencing a climate emergency in statements to the public, California governor Gavin Newsom declared one in his state in the aftermath of devastating wildfires in Northern California. He has passed executive orders and encouraged state legislators to take action to address the state’s “climate damn emergency,” as he put it. Newsom, Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, and several state agencies oppose the approval of these new oil and gas wells.
But, at this point, it’s not up to any of them — whether or not the wells get approved is up to the Kern County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, which have already partially weighed in on the decision. Earlier this month, the Commission recommended that the Board approve the fast-track permitting of the new oil and gas wells despite hearing from over 100 in opposition of the move.
This highlights a key way that California is hamstrung by its past as one of the biggest oil-producing states and the future it aspires to as a leader in climate change mitigation.
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Even though state-level officials publicly oppose the move, oil and gas corporations try — and have often been able — to influence state and local officials all over the state.
In Richmond, California, where a pipe at the Chevron Refinery burst and sent oil flooding into the San Francisco Bay, the company produces a so-called newspaper called the “Richmond Standard.” The publication regularly produces news about donations Chevron’s made to local organizations, alongside quasi-legitimate news items. They infamously and unsuccessfully poured $3 million into mayoral and city council races in order to back candidates who were pro-Chevron in 2014, but all of them were defeated. But Chevron’s operations still pollute the city’s air and water in the Northern California town.
In Southern California, the Los Angeles Times reports that some candidates for public office, like Aura Vasquez, a former commissioner for the L.A. Department of Water and Power, and college educator Loraine Lundquist openly declared that they won’t accept donations from fossil fuel companies. During their campaigns in the fall, Vasquez and Lundquist criticized officials like public officials like Mark Ridley-Thomas, a longtime county supervisor who now serves on the city council, and John Lee, another city council member, respectively, for refusing to say they won’t accept money from oil and gas companies.
That region, where California’s oil boom started in the late 1800s, is still home to a patchwork of politicians who collectively aren’t sure whether or not they want to sever ties with fossil fuels. Despite the words and efforts of many, oil and gas are still being pulled out of the ground and used to accelerate anthropomorphic climate change.
Solis, the mother of four from Bakersfield, says the solution is simple — and something she can support.
“Instead of saying, ‘Let’s bring in truckloads of band-aids for this dying industry,’ why aren’t we rebuilding and saying we need to invest in green energy?” she says, “I would be in full support if their ideas included a sustainable future for my family and my environment.”