Tired of Wells That Threaten Residents’ Health, a Small California Town Takes on the Oil Industry

ARVIN, California—In September 2018, Estela Escoto sat down with a team of lawyers and community organizers and weighed her options. 

Escoto’s town—Arvin, California—had just granted an oil drilling and well-servicing company, Petro-Lud, a permit to drill four new wells near a neighborhood densely packed with young families and a park where children played soccer. 

Escoto, president of an environmental justice group called the Committee for a Better Arvin, was frustrated, but not surprised. For years, she and the committee had been struggling to keep oil and gas development out of their neighborhoods.

 

The lawyers advised Escoto and Salvador Partida, vice president of the group, that they could file a lawsuit, but it would be an uphill battle.

“They asked us what we wanted to do,” Escoto said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. 

She told the lawyers: “Regardless of whether the chance of winning is one percent or 100 percent, we want to keep fighting against this.”

In Arvin, a small, agricultural town at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, pollution is a pervasive part of life. Pesticides sprayed on industrial-scale farms, fumes drifting from the region’s ubiquitous oil and gas wells, exhaust from the trucks barrelling down Interstate 5—it all gets trapped in the valley, creating a thick haze. This year the American Lung Association ranked Bakersfield, just 15 miles northwest of Arvin, as the worst metropolitan area in the U.S. in terms of annual particle pollution.

Arvin’s residents, like people in many other parts of California, are especially concerned by the oil and gas wells sprinkled throughout their community. These wells, sometimes drilled and operated in close proximity to neighborhoods, schools, and health care centers, release a toxic mix of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, xylene, hexane and formaldehyde into the air.

Studies have linked living near oil and gas extraction to a wide range of adverse health effects, including increased risk of asthma, respiratory illnesses, preterm birth, low birthweight and cancer—serious fears for the more than two million Californians who live within a quarter-mile of operational oil and gas wells. 

Creating a setback distance between oil and gas operations and places where people live, researchers have found, reduces the risks. Yet in California, the industry operates under a patchwork of regulations, with no statewide rule on setbacks—a regulatory gap that is rare among the nation’s top oil-producing states.

California is a paradox; though widely regarded as one of the most environmentally-conscious states, the oil industry wields considerable power here, and has consistently attempted to thwart new regulations, including public health protections. During the current legislative session, the Western States Petroleum Association and Chevron have been the two top lobbying groups in the state, spending $9.9 billion and $7.5 billion, respectively.

But in Arvin, a small group of mostly low-income, Latino residents is going against the grain, taking on the big oil companies in a David-versus-Goliath fight to protect the environment and their health. Their struggle is unusual in Kern County, where pumpjacks sucking heavy crude from the parched floor of the San Joaquin Valley stretch for miles. Here, in one of the poorest parts of the state, oil means big money: the county extracts 70 percent of the oil and 78 percent of the gas produced in California.

Fresh off several local victories, Escoto and the Committee for a Better Arvin have united with other frontline community groups—including many in Los Angeles, a hub for urban drilling—to press California to create a setback rule for the entire state.

In a test of whether grassroots action can really reshape California’s close relationship with the oil and gas industry, the coalition is urging state lawmakers to vote for a proposed law on setbacks that is now pending in Sacramento. Their slogan: “No drilling where we are living.”

Time for a Shake-Up

When Escoto, her husband, and three children moved to Arvin from Los Angeles in 2006, they poured all of their savings into a stucco house with a green lawn in the front and a fenced patio in the back.

“We thought that it would be a nice, peaceful place to live, kind of like a small town in Mexico,” Escoto said. 

Their first clue that Arvin was not the rural paradise they had hoped for was the water. Contaminated with arsenic and 1,2,3-TCP, a chemical that used to be in pesticides, the brownish tap water tasted strange. (Years later, the Environmental Protection Agency would provide funds to replace an old well adjacent to an agricultural chemical Superfund site.)

Concerned about the water quality, Escoto and her husband, Roberto Garcia, joined the Committee for a Better Arvin, a newly-formed group of community members who wanted a cleaner, healthier city. Surrounded by oil and gas extraction and large-scale agriculture, Arvin residents deal with some of the worst pollution in the country. 

The Committee tackled water quality issues, pesticide use, and the odor from a nearby chicken manure composting facility, but for many years, despite the pollution from the wells, they left the oil and gas industry alone.

That changed in 2014.

For months, people living on Nelson Court, a residential street not far from Arvin’s high school, had been smelling gas and experiencing nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness and nausea. In March 2014, air sampling from the inside of homes on the street revealed levels of toxic gas 13 times higher than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The cause: a leaky pipeline operated by Petro Capital Resources that was used to carry raw natural gas—a waste product from local wells. Eight families who lived on Nelson Court were forced to evacuate their homes, unable to return for eight months.

It was, for many Arvin residents, a tipping point. They began demanding answers. How could this have been allowed to happen? Escoto and the Committee pushed the Arvin City Council to impose stricter regulations on the oil and gas industry, including a requirement that wells be set back a certain distance from homes, schools and other sensitive sites. The city’s oil and gas ordinance hadn’t been updated since the 1960s. Only half joking, Escoto pointed out that it cost less to get a city permit to drill for oil than to get a permit to operate a taco truck.

Two years passed, however, with the city failing to take any concrete steps, aside from supporting a pipeline safety bill at the state level.

Residents of Arvin realized “that if the council was not going to help us, we needed to change the council,” Escoto said. It was time for a political shakeup.

That shakeup came from Jose Gurrola Jr., a self-described “homegrown kid” who, in 2016, decided to run for mayor.

Growing up, Gurrola’s family always had jugs of bottled water at their house because they knew that the arsenic and pesticide-contaminated water was not safe to drink. When he played baseball or soccer, he kept an inhaler in his bag in case the air pollution triggered an asthma attack. In 2012, at 19, he ran for a city council seat and won.

For Gurrola, who lives on Nelson Court, the Petro Capital Resources gas leak “really brought the issue of environmental justice and environmental racism to the forefront,” he said. “These things aren’t normal for every community, for every race.” 

He began pushing for reform from within the council, but kept hitting roadblock after roadblock.

Frustrated by being told to stay in his lane while his community suffered, Gurrola announced his candidacy for mayor. And once elected, he got to work. Just over a year into his term, Arvin unveiled an updated draft oil and gas ordinance. The changes the town sought were modest—the proposed ordinance would prohibit new oil and gas drilling in residential, mixed-use, commercial, and open space zones; create a 300-foot buffer between new oil and gas drilling and homes, schools and hospitals; and impose additional requirements related to odor, noise and light for oil and gas operations within 600 feet of sensitive sites.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors weighed in, discouraging Arvin from creating its own regulations. They advised the town to rely on the county’s ordinance and environmental impact report instead, acting, Gurrola recalled, as if the county’s ordinance was “the gold standard.” 

But the Kern County ordinance had a major flaw: The result of a deal between the county and the oil and gas industry, it allowed regulators to rubber stamp permits for new oil and gas extraction.

Arvin Takes on the Oil and Gas Industry

In 2013, before the Petro Capital Resources gas leak and before Gurrola became Arvin’s mayor, three oil and gas trade associations—the Western States Petroleum Association, the California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Independent Oil Producers’ Agency—had approached Kern County with a request. The groups, which represent industry titans like the California Resources Corporation, Chevron, Sentinel Peak Resources and Aera Energy (a joint venture of Shell and ExxonMobil), asked the county to streamline the permitting process for oil and gas exploration, development, and production by amending its zoning ordinance.

Kern County obliged. In 2015, the Board of Supervisors passed an amendment that allowed the approval of oil and gas extraction permits based on a single blanket environmental impact report. The three oil and gas trade associations funded the report to the tune of nearly $1 million. By the county’s estimate, the new zoning ordinance would allow the industry to drill over 72,000 new wells over the course of two decades, without any additional environmental review.

In 2016, with legal assistance from an environmental justice group called the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE), the Committee for a Better Arvin and two other community groups sued. Several higher profile environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, later joined the suit.

Three years later, an appeals court would rule in favor of the Committee for a Better Arvin and the other plaintiffs, saying that Kern County’s blanket environmental impact review was flawed and failed to take into account water use, air pollution, farmland degradation and noise issues.

But in 2017, as Arvin was considering its own oil and gas ordinance, the outcome of the lawsuit was still uncertain. Despite pressure from the industry groups and the Kern County Board of Supervisors, Arvin forged ahead.

Members of the Committee for a Better Arvin began a grassroots campaign in support of Arvin’s proposed ordinance. “We walked down all the streets. We visited many homes so that we could explain the problems that were going on,” Escoto said.

She and other activists talked with their neighbors, showing them videos filmed using optical gas imaging, which made the invisible air pollution spewing from the wells near their homes suddenly visible.

The oil and gas industry groups fought back, claiming that Arvin’s proposed ordinance would prevent mineral rights owners from accessing oil and gas over which they had legal claims. The groups, which represent companies worth trillions of dollars and have dedicated legal teams, threatened litigation against the tiny, rebellious city. That, Gurrola said, was a serious concern, since Arvin was “barely clawing our way out of budget issues at the time.”  

Arvin’s city council was just about to vote on the proposed ordinance when California Attorney General Xavier Beccera’s office sent a letter affirming that Arvin’s ordinance stood on solid legal ground. That, coupled with overwhelming community support, was enough to push Arvin’s proposed ordinance over the finish line. On July 17, 2018, the council passed the ordinance—the first of its kind in Kern County.

“It might seem like it’s small, only 300 feet, but for us, it was a really big accomplishment,” Escoto said.

A Growing Coalition

As Arvin’s environmental justice movement gained momentum, a similar story was also playing out in the greater Los Angeles area. In Los Angeles County alone, over 1.5 million people live within 2,500 feet of an operational well—a majority of them non-white. Although the region has fewer wells than Kern County, the population density is much higher. There, organizations like Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND-L.A.) also had been advocating for local setbacks.

Community leader and activist Magali Sanchez-Hall has lived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of East Wilmington on and off for the last 25 years. Many of her neighbors have passed away from cancer, and her aunt successfully fought off the disease. Though it is not possible to link individual cases to environmental exposure, Wilmington has some of the most toxic air in the state and has one of the highest cancer rates in Southern California.

It wasn’t until Sanchez-Hall began pursuing her Masters in Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles that she began to understand the connections between environmental degradation and the health effects that she and many others in her community had normalized.

She took a class on environmental law, and on the very first day, a guest speaker displayed a photograph of a church with an oil pumpjack right next to it. “This is ground zero for pollution in the United States,” the speaker said, explaining that Wilmington is plagued by a confluence of pollution from urban drilling, the sprawling Los Angeles-Long Beach Port Complex, and the city’s arterial highways.

Sanchez-Hall immediately recognized the church: it was one block from her home.

CRPE, the environmental justice group that represented the Committee for a Better Arvin in their lawsuit against Kern County, realized that people in the San Joaquin Valley and people in the greater Los Angeles area had a shared interest. Together with several other environmental justice organizations, they founded a group called Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, or VISIÓN.

“We decided that we wanted to come together to define a statewide strategy and lead the fight on a setback to protect the health of frontline communities,” Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of CRPE, said. VISIÓN has created a coalition of more than 120 organizations that support a statewide setback, including the Committee for a Better Arvin.

VISIÓN approached Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat who represents the coastal area southwest of Los Angeles. He agreed to author a bill calling for a 2,500-foot setback between new oil and gas development and sensitive sites like homes, schools and health care facilities, which became known as Assembly Bill 345 (AB 345). Muratsuchi introduced the bill in February 2019, just after California’s newly elected governor, Gavin Newsom, had taken office.

‘We Have a Lot of People Sick’ 

By the time the bill reached the floor of the state assembly, California’s relationship with the oil and gas industry had entered uncharted waters.

Six months into his term as governor, Newsom was forced to contend with a scandal. Two environmental research and advocacy groups, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker, uncovered that several regulators and engineers at the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) had tens of thousands of dollars of personal funds invested in ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Valero, and other major oil and gas companies—the very same companies they were charged with regulating.

Newsom quickly fired Ken Harris, the supervisor of the division, but that wasn’t the end of the drama. Just a few months later, an investigation by the Desert Sun revealed that regulators at the division had been approving permits for cyclic steam injection—a process used to extract California’s heavy crude, which is extremely viscous—using a “dummy” approval file and circumventing the required environmental review.

It was time for an overhaul. In October 2019, Newsom signed a bill that transformed DOGGR into the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM). The division’s original mission had been to promote oil and gas extraction; now it had a mandate to consider public health, safety and environmental concerns, including greenhouse gas emissions. 

CalGEM embarked on a public health rulemaking process, holding seven public meetings, the first of which was in Arvin, to solicit input on how to best go about protecting frontline communities.

Muratsuchi amended AB 345 to complement the division’s rulemaking process. While the previous version of the bill would have allowed the legislature to adopt a 2,500-foot setback distance, the current bill mandates that CalGEM create a setback based on health and science data and environmental justice concerns. It gives the division a deadline of July 2022, and requires that it consider a 2,500-foot setback for schools, playgrounds and other public places where children are present.

Brostrom, CRPE’s expert on the legislation, said that even though CalGEM has begun the rulemaking process, it is still critical that the state legislature pass AB 345. Without AB 345, she said, “there is nothing holding CalGEM to actually completing this rulemaking or providing any parameters at all.”

She added, “What AB 345 does is it provides us some assurances,” namely, that there will be some sort of statewide setback, and the rule will be complete by a certain date.

Before the pandemic struck, Escoto traveled from her home in Arvin to join a group of frontline community members as they walked the halls of Sacramento, encouraging legislators to support the bill. “It’s very important that this law passes,” she told them. “We have a lot of people in my community who are sick because of the pollution.”

A Fight Over Setbacks

Ever since Muratsuchi first proposed AB 345, oil and gas industry groups have been pushing back hard. They claim that there is no scientific basis for the 2,500-foot setback that environmentalists and public health advocates are demanding, and that AB 345 will limit oil and gas production and harm jobs and tax revenue in the state.

In a statement, Rock Zierman, the California Independent Petroleum Association’s chief executive officer, said: “An arbitrary setback would not mean the state will consume less energy, but it will result in less in-state production, fewer jobs and taxes and, in turn, a greater reliance on oil imported from foreign countries.”

Tracy Leach, director of Kern Citizens for Energy, a industry-funded group, said “There should be studies, and there should be science to come up with setbacks.” Leach is also the president and chief executive officer of Providence Strategic Consulting, Inc., a Bakersfield-based communications firm that represents the Western States Petroleum Association.

Leach argued that the 2,500-foot setback is arbitrary. “I don’t understand where that came from. It needs to be based on data,” she said.

But Brostrom, the assistant director of CRPE, countered, “There’s a growing body of scientific research, as well as a growing consensus amongst scientists that this is a minimum distance for health and safety.” Some experts, she noted, recommend an even greater distance. 

More than two dozen studies from across the country have linked proximity to oil and gas development to a wide range of negative health effects. Most recently, a Stanford University study looked at whether exposure to oil and gas extraction was a risk factor for preterm birth for women in the San Joaquin Valley. The study found that women who lived near wells during their first and second trimesters were 8 to 14 percent more likely to experience a preterm birth, after other known risk factors were taken into account. The association was strongest for Hispanic and Black mothers.

In 2015, an independent, state-sponsored report by the California Council on Science and Technology reviewed the scientific literature and recommended a host of public health protections, including a 2,500-foot setback. In a 2019 report sponsored by the City of Los Angeles, scientists and public health experts from Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy recommended the city consider a setback of between 500 feet and one mile (5,290 feet).

To those who try to derail public health measures, Sanchez-Hall has a simple message. “I always ask, ‘Do you live where I live? Do you have children that suffer from asthma? Has your mother died of cancer?'” she said.

“What they’re asking is basically, ‘Give me permission to continue killing people,'” she said. “When you say less oversight, less regulations, less inspections, you’re saying, ‘Let me kill a few more people.'”

Industry groups counter that oil and gas production is a sizable source of jobs and tax revenue for the state. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, the oil and gas extraction industry employs just shy of 60,000 people in California. (In comparison, the solar and wind industries employ more than 157,000). 

In 2017, the oil and gas industry paid $21.6 billion in state and local taxes. 

Leach said that bills like AB 345 “are just thinly disguised efforts to just end oil and gas production.”

Brostrom disagreed. “They’re conflating two things,” she said. 

Although many environmentalists say we must transition away from fossil fuels to curb carbon emissions and avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, AB 345 is not about limiting oil and gas production, Brostrom said. Rather, she said, it is an effort to gradually shift the point of extraction away from vulnerable communities.

“Let’s have that debate about production—and it will be a robust debate,” Brostrom said, “but AB 345 is not the right place to have it.”

Although fossil fuels have traditionally been a large sector of California’s economy, the industry has been growing increasingly unstable.

“The industry talks about itself as though it were a rock-solid economic fixture,” Ann Alexander, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “It’s just not the case.”

California’s oil production has been slipping since the 1980s. The most recent casualty: the California Resources Corporation.

On July 15, the California Resources Corporation, which operates the most wells of any oil and gas producer in the state, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company owes Kern County $25 million in tax debt, owes CalGEM $24 million in assessment fees and has nearly 8,000 idle wells that need to be plugged—a massive environmental and public health liability.

Alexander argued, “This decline is not new. It is happening, and it is not going to be caused by setbacks.” 

In addition to enacting public health protections, she said, California also needs to have “an open acknowledgement that this industry decline is happening, and an honest conversation about how we can help the workers move on.”

An Uncertain Future

AB 345 passed California’s Assembly in January. Now, the legislation is up for a vote in the state Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources and Water on Aug. 5.

Alexander sees AB 345 as a benchmark. “It has historically been very hard to pass legislation of any kind that the oil and gas industry didn’t like, and it is still hard, but the tide has started to turn,” she said. Alexander said the rulemaking is also a test for the Newsom administration. Environmentalists and public health advocates were heartened by the governor’s response to corruption and failures within the regulatory division, but disappointed to see that after a nine-month moratorium on fracking, CalGEM has now issued 48 new permits since April 2020.

Brostrom said, “If California does not adopt AB 345, and does not adopt a significant setback in its rulemaking, I think that is going to be a tremendous, tremendous failure.”

In California, “we’re often talking about how we are leading the nation in the fight against climate change and the fight for our environment,” Muratsuchi, the bill’s author, said. “And yet on these common sense proposals to protect low-income communities of color from the well-documented, adverse health impacts of oil and gas developments in their backyards, we are behind many other states and communities across the country.”

‘The Right to a Healthy Life’

Regardless of what happens with AB 345 at the state level, Arvin will continue to fight for a cleaner, healthier future for its residents, and that means taking on the oil and gas industry, Gurrola said. After the city’s ordinance passed, the California Independent Petroleum Association poured $20,000 into the small community’s city council election, hoping to unseat the public officials that had supported the ordinance. 

It didn’t work. Arvin’s oil and gas ordinance remains in effect, and now the city is applying for funding through California’s Community Air Grants Program to better monitor and improve their air quality.

Escoto and the Committee for a Better Arvin won their 2018 lawsuit, successfully preventing Petro-Lud from drilling more oil wells in their community.

Escoto said she remains hopeful. All the successes the Committee for a Better Arvin has had are proof that grassroots action works, she said.

“We all have the right to live a healthy life, without all of this contamination,” she said. “I believe we all have that right.”

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