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With the COVID pandemic changing daily life as we know it, we all find ourselves adjusting to a new normal. As two young climate and social justice activists enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara, learning how to work, take classes, and organize from home has not been easy. Now more than ever, we sense the urgency to draw attention to the injustices perpetrated by the oil industry as it takes advantage of this pandemic to further pollute and to speak to how the climate crisis and the COVID crisis intersect. Despite being isolated from one another, we have found hope in coalitions and community organizing efforts that are providing outlets for mutual aid and community action. One such coalition is CA Youth Vs Big Oil, made up of a combination of environmental and social justice organizations such as Sunrise Movement, Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org.
This coalition is currently working to address Governor Newsom as his administration has used our preoccupation with COVID-19 to covertly approve 48 new permits for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Kern County’s Lost Hills, in a shocking end to a nine-month moratorium on fracking. In April, Newsom issued 24 new permits to Aera Energy, a joint venture of Shell and ExxonMobil, followed by another 12 permits to Aera in June. Most recently Newsom approved 12 new permits to Chevron, bringing the total number of new permits in the Lost Hills Oil Field in Kern County to 48. The Center for Biological Diversity found that these 48 new permits authorize 360 separate fracking events as each well can be fracked multiple times.
Newsom’s actions leave us wondering: In the face of the current COVID-19 public health crisis that we know is exacerbated by air pollution from fossil fuels, why is the state prioritizing permits to polluting oil companies over human and environmental health? While the Trump administration has repeatedly illustrated where its priorities lay, we had hoped Governor Newsom might have demonstrated the same kind of leadership in his response to the public health crisis posed by fracking as he has to the public health crisis posed by COVID-19. But alas, it appears that after a short hiatus, Big Oil is once again being favored over people’s lives.
Although we are both located in the Central Coast region, we stand in solidarity with Kern County residents and climate activists. Like Santa Barbara County and Ventura County, Kern County receives an F in air quality due to particulate pollution — pollution from car emissions, chemicals from power plants, and burning coal and fossil fuels. Fracking in particular increases air pollution and releases chemicals that impair the respiratory health of those in surrounding communities. This type of pollution is especially dangerous in the face of the COVID-19 crisis as new research shows that high exposure to particulate pollution increases risk of death from the virus. Such air pollution is not new to the residents of Lost Hills, who have struggled with health issues stemming from poor air quality for decades. Adding to their toxic burden via new fracking will undoubtedly worsen the air quality and the health of Kern County residents.
Unfortunately, it appears that these new permits in Lost Hills are a part of a pattern in oil infrastructure in California: placing facilities in low-income communities of color. Lost Hills, like Santa Maria — home to the East Cat Canyon Oil Field that is currently the site of another fight over new oil permits — has a high population of Latinx residents. Across the state of California, large polluters are disproportionately placed in low-income communities of color, exposing residents to air pollution, greenhouse gases, and toxic particles This pollution leaves many with lung issues, asthma, or compromised immune systems, and it will likely impact the COVID-19 death toll. The oil industry is using this public health crisis to persuade Governor Newsom’s administration to relax environmental regulations and speed up permitting of new sites. Doing so would only further imperil communities already exposed to air pollution and higher COVID 19 mortality rates.
Last Thursday, one of California’s largest oil producers, CRC, filed for bankruptcy. This move potentially leaves taxpayers on the hook for a massive cleanup. CRC and its affiliates operate approximately 18,700 wells in California, which could cost more than $1 billion to properly plug. This bankruptcy is just one more example of why California needs to diversify its economy and move beyond fossil fuels. Governor Newsom needs to lead our state and our nation into a future with healthy, good-paying jobs instead of permitting new oil wells.
COVID-19 is beyond doubt exposing the faults in the systems we have in place as well as highlighting the intersection between human health and environmental health. As many wonder about the future, “a return to normal” is not the mindset we should be accepting or what we should be striving for. As Greta Thunberg reminded us, “Normal was already a crisis.”
As community leaders come together to fight for human and environmental justice against new fracking in Kern County and across the Central Coast, #CAYouthVBigOil is calling for a just recovery plan inspired by the Green New Deal. Now more than ever it is important to listen to these youth leader’s demands that Governor Newsom STOP new oil drilling, DROP existing oil permits, and ROLL out a 2,500-foot health-and-safety buffer zone between humans and oil infrastructure.
On the #CaYouthVBigOil website, you can find a list of mutual aid resources from across the state to access support, or offer your own aid, a powerful tool in protecting the health and well-being of your community. You can also find ways to take action and to ask the governor to prioritize human and environmental health over big business in this time of crisis.
Take action with us to fight for a more equitable, just, and healthy society. Fossil fuel bailouts are not the solution to this crisis. Protecting people’s lives is.