Increased oil production could actually be an economic drain. Local oil company Santa Maria Energy (SME) has promised 100 high-paying local jobs and $3 million in county tax revenue if its proposal to drill 100 new wells in Santa Maria using cyclic steam extraction is approved. But if oil drilling is so good at generating jobs and tax revenues, why is it that Kern County, which produces more oil than anywhere in California — 81 percent — is one of the poorest counties in the state?
Houses in Kern County are worth $100,000 less on average than houses in Santa Maria, and tax revenues are lower per person than in Santa Barbara County. Kern has a 24 percent higher unemployment rate than the California average, and it ranks 49th lowest out of 58 counties in the state in per capita income. Also, at least partly due to pollution caused by the oil drilling, 1 in 5 Kern County youngsters has asthma. Additionally, Kern County has three times the rate of asthma hospitalizations as Santa Barbara County.
Part of the reason oil counties can end up so poor is because when the companies are done degrading the land, property values decline. This reduces tax revenues significantly. Another reason is because the jobs required for such advanced operations are highly specialized, outsourced to engineers and computer experts who have worked on familiar operations such as in Texas and Oklahoma. The fracking industry made the same promises to Pennsylvanians that SME is making to us. In several Pennsylvania counties where the fracking boom occurred, employment rates did not rise — they dropped. Where they rose, they did so negligibly, and often at the cost of permanently contaminated water.
The SME project may very well be a harbinger of more poverty for our county. I hope the county supervisors reject it entirely.