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Cesar Aguirre has spent incalculable hours tracking air pollution levels around Kern County, California. In the region responsible for an estimated 75% of the state’s oil production, Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), says it’s not uncommon to encounter houses, schools, and healthcare centers located mere feet from fracking wells.

He’s heard stories from residents who report experiencing constant dizziness, frequent nosebleeds, and severe asthma attacks because of air pollution. He’s spoken with parents whose children have gotten trapped at school because of explosions from nearby wells. He’s seen, through finely tuned infrared cameras, the way these wells spew clouds of toxic chemicals into the air. 

So on April 3, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom quietly lifted a nine-month statewide fracking moratorium to issue 24 new well permits in Kern County, it felt like a slap in the face.

“It’s in these places where they feel that they can sacrifice communities,” Aguirre says. “We feel like targets.”

According to estimates by the National Resources Defense Council, one in three Kern residents lives within a mile of an oil or gas well, and 64% of residents who face increased exposure to pollution-related health threats are Latino. Such proximity is known to cause increased risk of asthma and bronchitis, reduced lung functioning, and other respiratory damage. The American Lung Association’s 2020 State of the Air Report ranked Kern County among the worst in the country for its air pollution levels.

Amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, existing pollution has put Kern residents in a particularly vulnerable position. An April 2020 study out of Harvard University found that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with higher risk of death from COVID-19. Building out infrastructure that increases pollution levels in an already highly polluted area is mere salt on the wound of compounded health crises, many argue.

It’s “a vicious cycle,” says Neena Mohan, climate justice program associate at the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA). “It’s especially dangerous to be sheltering in place next to oil wells that are consistently releasing toxic air pollutants, which is increasing their susceptibility.”

The permit approvals also represent a sharp walk back of relative progress for environmental justice communities in Kern County and beyond. In July of 2019, Newsom abruptly fired Ken Harris, California’s top oil and gas regulator, after learning that the number of fracking permits issued during his first six months in office was double that of the year prior. In November, Newsom announced a moratorium on all new permits for fracking and cyclic steam projects, the latter of which is believed to be linked to one of the largest oil spills in the state’s history.

And after campaigning on a pro-environmental platform in 2018—one that involved pledging to ban fracking and to lead California down the path toward a clean energy future—many argue that Newsom’s latest move is a 180-degree turn from the green promises that got him elected. “The government is failing us,” says Nayamin Martinez, director of CCEJN, resolutely. “[The well permits are] so contradictory to what they’re supposedly promoting.”

“They argue it’s an economic gain for the community, that they’re generating jobs and what have you,” Martinez adds. “They are completely in favor of doing whatever is in their power to support the oil industry.”

Indeed, an estimated 70% of Kern County’s economic activity is driven by the oil and gas sector, which Martinez says has a history of taking priority over public health and human rights concerns. Among more egregious acts, Martinez notes that oil companies in California’s Central Valley have been known to take advantage of drought periods by selling wastewater from oil drilling to agriculture companies for the production of crops shipped across the U.S. and beyond.

But the pursuit of economic gain from oil and gas extraction has not come without its costs: One California State University Fullerton study puts a $3 billion annual price tag on the health impacts of air pollution within the San Joaquin Valley, home to Fresno and Kern. That’s $1,000 per person per year, the study argues, or 460 premature deaths among those age 30 and older; 23,300 asthma attacks; 260 hospital admissions; 3,000 lost work days; 188,000 days of school absences; and 188,400 days of reduced activity in adults.

Christopher Wisehart, organizer with the Kern County chapter of the Sunrise Movement, says much of the cost imposed by the oil industry is externalized to the public: “You see where the oil businesses are going to come in with the counterargument of ‘Oh, well look how much money we generate,’ […] And that sounds great until you realize, well, that’s being offset in other places.”

People of color primarily bear the brunt of this burden. “Environmental racism is very prevalent here in Kern County,” says Riddhi Patel, an organizer with Kern Sunrise. “It does heavily affect our immigrant population, POC, the low-income areas, more than [others].”

It’s for this reason organizers across the state are advocating for a just transition away from fossil fuels, one that offers replacement work—like building clean energy infrastructure or plugging abandoned oil wells—or income for laborers in California’s oil fields.

“What does it look like to both meet climate change targets and protect public health, but also meaningfully protect these communities and workers, who have economic reliance on that sector?” says Matt Leonard, director of special projects at 350.org in Oakland. “Whether it’s job retraining or stimulus dollars, we want to make sure that decline happens in a managed way.”

Leonard adds that it would be naive to ignore “the writing on the wall” in all of this: that the oil and gas sector, which has always been “dubiously profitable,” is on the outs.

“We were already on extremely precarious financial footing six months ago, but especially so now in the wake of COVID-19,” Leonard says. Declining values in the oil and gas sector should offer state and federal legislators the opportunity to invest in clean energy rather than resuscitating a dying industry.  

In the meantime, 350.org, CCEJN, CEJA, and numerous other environmental justice groups across California are fighting for the passage of AB 345, a statewide piece of legislation requiring all oil and gas facilities to be located at least 2,500 feet away from “sensitive receptors,” like schools, hospitals, churches, and residential neighborhoods.

The bill, currently with the state senate, places public health concern above all else. It would reduce the number of Californians who face increased risk of dying from COVID-19, who grapple with frequent asthma attacks from air pollution, and who watch fracking well explosions from behind classroom windows.

For Aguirre, the bill’s passage would signal a shift in priority by California legislators, who he feels have long since viewed Kern County residents—and others across the state living near fracking activity—as sacrificial.  

“If they put the interests and the needs of the communities first and foremost, that’s when we will feel respected,” he says. “That’s when we will feel wanted, and that’s when we will feel that we are being represented by the people that are supposed to be representing us.”

Audrey Carleton is a freelance environment and culture journalist from Washington, D.C. Currently based in Toronto, she has bylines in The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, Motherboard, and many more.

Audrey Carleton

Audrey Carleton