Environmental justice activists gather at the Fresno County Hall of Records on Friday, April 8, 2022, to demand a halt to oil drilling in Fresno County. Credit: Danielle Bergstrom

On an unseasonably hot April afternoon, a group of San Joaquin Valley residents and environmental justice advocates called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to halt oil drilling across Fresno County in order to address the increasing impacts of climate change.

The group of about 25 people, representing several organizations, including the Central California Environmental Justice Network, the Sierra Club – Tehipite Chapter, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, the Last Chance Alliance, and others — met in front of the Fresno County Hall of Records last Friday.

The outcry comes after Fresno County supervisors unanimously passed a resolution last month pressing state leaders to allow for more oil drilling and fracking — their attempt to help alleviate pain to consumers from rising gas prices.

“A month ago, all our local representatives in Fresno County held a press conference in this exact location to demand more drilling and fracking in Fresno County. This was against all the science. This is against the public health crisis. And this is against our future,” said Pedro Hernández, deputy director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.

Environmental justice advocates generally oppose oil drilling for two reasons: the localized health impacts felt by those living adjacent to oil fields, including asthma and preterm birth development effects, and the contribution of burning fossil fuels, like oil, to climate change.

At a news conference in March, Supervisor Steve Brandau said they are hoping to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s ban on importing Russian oil in the wake of the war on Ukraine and reduce our reliance on foreign oil, The Bee/Fresnoland previously reported.

“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, at the March news conference, reported by The Bee/Fresnoland.

Some experts warn that increasing domestic oil production will not produce the immediate relief in gas prices many are hoping for, The Sacramento Bee reported last month.

Ruben Rodriguez, a Coalinga oil worker turned climate organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, urged state action in his backyard.

“Governor Newsom tells us he will fight polluters. But if he was serious about making fossil fuels part of our past, he must immediately stop approving new oil and gas permits.”

Newsom directed state agencies last year to ban fracking by 2024 and phase out oil extraction by 2045. In October, his administration proposed a 3,200-foot setback between new oil wells and sensitive uses, including homes, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. The policy has not yet received final approval.

But advocates say more can be done: the ban should be applied to existing operations, not just new wells, said Ernesto Vasquez, a Fresno State student, and climate activist.

The State of Fresno County’s Oil and Gas Industry

Fresno County has about 2,315 active oil and gas drilling wells — representing about 4% of the state’s total oil production, according to April 2022 data from the California Department of Conservation.

Most of the county’s oil wells are near Coalinga. However, there are some oil wells near Riverdale, Raisin City, and Helm on the west side. An interactive map of the state’s oil and gas wells can be found on the California Department of Conservation’s website.

Oil produced in Fresno County is transported to the Bay Area or Los Angeles for refining.

The oil and gas industry employed just under 3,000 people in Fresno County as of 2017, according to a 2019 report from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. That represents about 1% of all jobs in Fresno County.

Advocates call for ‘just transition’ from oil and gas jobs

In order to avoid economic shocks to families and the economy by the loss of oil and gas jobs that would result from a ban on local production, environmental advocates are calling for what they call a “just transition.”

The idea has captured the imagination of state leaders. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is developing a “just transition” roadmap to guide state policy. AB 1966 (Muratsuchi) would create a state fund to help retrain and transition workers from the oil and gas industry to other industries that are not associated with fossil fuel production.

“In the San Joaquin Valley, there are many industries that provide wages to people, but more often than not, the choices our society has are limited to jobs that trade a living wage for a polluted environment,” Hernández said.

“Having a just transition would help break our community free from this destructive cycle and provide good jobs with the good health, climate, and environmental outcomes we all deserve.”

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