Long a leader in environmental regulation, California is considering phasing out oil drilling in the state by 2045 as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
Our state’s economy isn’t heavily dependent on fossil fuels the way the economies of, say, West Virginia or Oklahoma are. But ending oil production here would still pose a major challenge for at least one pocket of the Golden State.
About a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles is Kern County, our very own oil country. Kern County produces 70 percent of the state’s oil. The industry there is responsible for 16,000 jobs.
And, most crucially, oil and gas generate nearly one-quarter of the county’s property tax revenue, which pays for schools, law enforcement, hospitals and other public services. “Nowhere else in California is tied to oil and gas the way we are, and we can’t replace what that brings overnight,” the county’s chief administrative officer, Ryan Alsop, told The New York Times.
My colleague Brad Plumer recently traveled to Kern County and wrote about its struggle to quit oil drilling, even in a state so dedicated to reducing its carbon footprint. Kern County offers a glimpse into issues that other communities across the U.S. could face as they also try to disentangle themselves from fossil fuel income.
The problem boils down to this: If California ends oil drilling, Kern County needs another source of revenue to keep its roads paved and libraries open. Some have suggested leaning into renewables, as the county is already the state’s largest provider of wind and solar power. Local leaders are also discussing expanding industries like aerospace, manufacturing, hydrogen or biodiesel production, or even carbon capture technology.
“Politicians, businesses, environmentalists, academics — everyone’s sort of thinking hard about how can the county reinvent itself,” Brad told me. “But all of these strategies take time, and they might take longer than the county has if the state is serious about phasing out oil production so quickly.”
If Kern County waits until the tax revenue and jobs dry up, it will most likely become harder to attract new businesses. People won’t want to put down roots in a place that’s struggling to fund its parks, Police Department or social services.
There are many examples of places that have had trouble bouncing back after their main industry disappeared, including coal communities in West Virginia, and towns in the Rust Belt after the decline of heavy industry.
One model for Kern County could be Tonawanda, a town in western New York that lost millions in tax revenue after a coal plant closed in 2015. The New York State Legislature helped replace the funds, and the town is now looking to redevelop its waterfront and expand industries like tire manufacturing.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has already proposed $65 million to support and retrain displaced oil and gas workers in the state, $200 million to clean up abandoned wells and $450 million to help communities diversify their economies.
It’s possible the state will commit more as the end of oil drilling draws nearer, but it remains unclear how that money should best support Kern County, Brad said.
“It does seem that the state is very much aware of this problem, and they seem sympathetic to it,” he said. “It’s just a really hard challenge, and no one really has a perfect template for what exactly you do.”
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Kit Hewitt, who lives in Berkeley:
“I try to spend every Memorial Weekend on the Eel River in Northern California. I belong to a canoe club and we get a group of people together to camp along the river for two nights and we paddle three days. The second night, we camp at a place called Basin Creek. It is one of the most lovely places I have ever been. A small creek spills out of a hilly area. It has carved into the solid rock a series of five or six small basins — the largest might be four feet deep and a bit larger than a kiddie pool. The tallest waterfall is 15 feet. It is an intimate place with room for only two people. It’s a difficult clamber to get to where the mossy walls share the cracks and crannies with small wildflowers and ferns. If the main river canyon is windy and harsh, this little creek is funny and peaceful. The icy cold water seems to giggle its way down each small drop. Even when the Eel River is low because of the summer drought, Basin Creek has some water to fill each little basin.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
As water restrictions take their toll on Southern California, tell us: What’s going on with your lawn? Are you trying to keep your grass green? Or, did the drought prompt you to rip out your grass?
Let us know at [email protected] Please include your name and where you live.
And before you go, some good news
A 53-year-old man and his black Border collie, Saul, were on a hike last week near California’s Tahoe National Forest when something went wrong.
The man fell 70 feet from a ridge, breaking his hip and multiple ribs. He called 911.
About seven hours later, search and rescue volunteers came across Saul in the forest. The dog jumped up and down, spun around in circles and ran 20 feet ahead of them, said Sgt. Dennis Haack of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.
Then, Saul looked back at the volunteers, Haack said, as if to say: Follow me.
They followed Saul for about 200 yards, and there, lying in a bed of dirt and covered by a camouflage tarp, was the injured man, in pain but grateful for his loyal pet and the volunteers.
“The true credit,” the authorities said, was reserved for Saul, who has a splotch of white on his chest and sad, anticipatory eyes.