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Fresno County leaders on Tuesday urged state leaders to increase domestic oil production in light of rising gas prices for consumers, farmers, and other leading industries in California’s central San Joaquin Valley.

In a unanimous vote, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to “help offset some of the costs that our consumers and farmers and everyone else is experiencing,” said Board Chair Brian Pacheco during a news conference following Tuesday’s vote.

The resolution, proposed by Supervisors Steve Brandau and Nathan Magsig, calls on California to increase domestic oil production.

In addition to Fresno County residents and consumers, county officials said that the local agriculture and transportation industries are being “severely impacted” by current fuel prices.

“We’re trying to wake up the legislature and the governor” to the fact that California once produced most of the oil it consumed, Magsig said Tuesday.

In addition to the bipartisan resolution, the supervisors called on Sacramento to ease the oil and gas industry regulations and issue more drilling permits.

While the supervisors said they support the ban on Russian oil imports, they also said that domestic production is a better alternative than importing oil from countries like Venezuela, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. “My opinion – some of those actors are not much better than Russian actors,” said Brandau. “So why don’t we just produce that oil at home and refine that oil at home?”

Several Fresno County business leaders joined the supervisors in the call for increased domestic oil production, calling it a food security and national security concern.

“A nation that cannot fuel or feed itself cannot defend itself. Foreign oil and foreign food are two areas we should never have to depend on someone else,” said Daniel Hartwig, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Environmental and community leaders criticized the supervisor’s resolution, saying that it takes the county in the wrong direction and risks increasing harm to populations located near oil operations.

The call for increased oil production is at odds with the direction of the state’s efforts to limit oil production and greenhouse gas emissions. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has called for the end of the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, as well as to ban fracking by 2024 and to phase out oil extraction by 2045.

During his annual State of the State address earlier this month, Newsom proposed a rebate program to offset the rising gas prices.

Fresno County’s oil industry

Fresno County is an oil-producing region. A 2019 report by the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation on the state of the oil and gas industry in California found that as of 2019, Fresno County has a total of 3,697 oil wells, 1,984 of which were active and 1,713 were idle.

County supervisors estimated that between six to 10 million barrels of oil are produced per year in Fresno County.

Most of the oil wells are in west Fresno County fields in Coalinga, but there are other fields only a few dozen miles of southwest Fresno communities, near Kerman and Riverdale, said Supervisor Buddy Mendes on Tuesday.

Mendes said that in addition to oil production, he’d like to see fracking “on the whole west side” as well.

The LAEDC report also found that as of 2017, about 2,969 Fresno County jobs depended on oil and gas.

Fresno County’s oil industry is a “vital part of our local economy,” supervisors said in their resolution, noting the industry provides millions of dollars in taxes that benefit schools and public safety while also creating hundreds of high-paying skilled-trade jobs.

The total economic output is estimated at $389 million.

“Chevron, Fresno County’s primary oil producer, is consistently one of the top five assessed-value taxpayers in Fresno County,” the resolution states. However, during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisor meeting, Brandau said they are currently eighth on the list.

Representatives from the local agriculture, construction, and trucking industries joined the supervisors in calling for an increase in domestic oil production for business reasons and job creation.

“Every segment of the food chain is seeing large energy cost increases right now, and that’s creating price spikes” at supermarkets, said Hartwig of the farm bureau. “It’s important to note that we as farmers and ranchers, however, do not see any of the increased grocery dollars back on our farms.” Increased gas prices, fertilizer prices, and water scarcity are all impacting farmers’ profits, said Hartwig.

Chuck Riojas, executive director of the Fresno / Madera / Tulare / Kings Building Trades Council, said that the building trades council has consistently advocated for more domestic oil. “All of those refinery jobs are living-wage jobs,” said Riojas, and have adequate health care and pension plans.

In recent years, the state has launched a “just transition” initiative to help the state’s 112,000 oil and gas workers transition into new jobs, which policymakers say is a necessary step as the state seeks to meet the goal to cut greenhouse gasses by about 40% by 2030.

‘Impulse reaction’ to rising gas prices?

A number of community voices say they disagree with the supervisors’ resolution, saying that it’s time for the state to transition to clean energy.

“The last thing California needs is to fuel future crises with more oil and gas permits,” said Destiny Rodriguez, regional community relations manager with the nonprofit, The Climate Center.

“Our continued reliance on fossil fuels is inherently dangerous and unstable, sacrificing the health of frontline communities to pad oil executive profits,” Rodriguez said in an email to The Bee. ”In fact, high gas prices in California are the result of the fossil fuel industry’s market manipulation, not low supply.”

Kobi Naseck is a Coalition Coordinator for VISIÓN, or Voice in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, which includes local groups such as the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition and Central California Environmental Justice Network in the greater Fresno area.

Naseck said any new oil and gas infrastructure would be an “impulsive reaction” to rising gas prices.

“This oil drilling happens in our backyards, and new permits or renewed rework permits will poison our communities for decades while doing nothing for production in the short term,” said Naseck. “To protect consumers and the more than two million Californians who live with toxic consequences of neighborhood oil drilling, we must break our dependence on unpredictable and volatile fossil fuels.”

A group of Fresno area interfaith leaders sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors, signed by 74 faith-based leaders and community members, calling for the county leaders to take action to address climate change’s impact on the county.

“The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights what countless studies have already amply demonstrated: that human actions are changing our very life support systems of water, air, and soil,” the leaders told the supervisors in their letter.

The letter called on the Board of Supervisors to reconsider its recent rejection of a state grant that would have funded the Fresno County’s Public Health Department to study the impact of climate change on the county’s vulnerable populations.

“Time is running out for taking effective climate change actions,” the leaders wrote. “As decision makers, you are in positions that allow you to support initiatives that will help keep the county livable and as healthy as possible for current and future generations.”

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.