The long shadows cast in Kern County’s San Joaquin Valley come from oil wells, not palm trees.

Although America is growing more excited about slashing greenhouse gas emissions within a decade, Kern County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance in March that’s likely to significantly accelerate drilling — with as many as 40,000 new oil and gas wells in Kern by the mid-2030.

Black gold was discovered in 1899 and Kern County is still responsible for more than 70% of oil and 80% of natural gas produced in California.

The supervisors held a nine-hour hearing — the longest in Board history — which can serve as a window on the stakes involved as communities and states try to shift away from fossil fuels to slow climate change.

In Kern County, the Board action raises land-use and groundwater issues, further pitting the oil and gas industry against the equally important agricultural sector.

For the region’s large Hispanic community — families who live or work near the open wells — it puts their health even more in the cross hairs.

On a hot afternoon, residents can barely see the Sierra Nevada mountains that border the valley to the east because of the dense pollution. Drilled wells release greenhouse gas emissions that are major contributors to climate change and respiratory problems. 

The closer the proximity to the source, studies show, the higher the risk.

In 2020, Kern was ranked the worst US county for year-round particle pollution in the American Lung Association’s annual report.

The county has more than 47,000 active wells and more than 25,000 idle wells, according to data from the California Geologic Energy Management Division.

Farmers worry about what’s to come and how their land — which produces a bounty of almonds, grapes and pistachios — will be affected in the long term.

Nearly 6% of jobs are in the extraction or construction industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Farming, fishing and forestry jobs constitute 13%.

State regulations may soon shift the dynamics and place new pressures on local leaders. A comprehensive bill that would ban fracking statewide and halt other oil-extraction techniques is making its way through the legislature. 

If passed, it would stop wells from operating within 2,500 feet of schools and homes, a provision heralded by environmental groups and denounced by oil and gas officials.

Kern supervisors think the legislative measure is out of touch with reality, given California’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. 

They know their county has a lot at stake.

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