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      Kern, The Mississippi of Fracking

      The Four Corners, illuminated red, is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, October 2014)When anti-fracking activists end their protest at Governor Jerry Brown's Oakland home on February 7, where will they turn next?

      The governor is not likely (but never say never) to respond by issuing a moratorium on fracking, especially with only 15 state Senate votes in favor. With a 60 percent victory margin in November's election and bold new goals for renewable energy and greenhouse gas reductions, he may ignore the protests altogether.

      But there is one policy area where the governor may be compelled to act: by enforcing state laws and regulations that are supposed to protect public health in local communities. The target should be Kern County, the black heart of California's oil industry where fracking is centered.  

      In a Nov. 19 report for In These Times, Hannah Guzik reports how "fracking the poor" is the custom in Kern, where a majority of residents are Latino and 22.5 percent live below the poverty line. Eighty percent of California's fracked oil wells are in Kern, where 69 percent of the people surviving within a one mile of a well are people of color. The industry is not required to disclose what hazardous air pollutants they are releasing, not even to measure and monitor the cumulative air emissions. The state has not done adequate, if any, studies on the health effects of oil and gas production, according to health specialist Seth Shonkoff. The industry is exempt from such federal laws as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water act, even though it is out of compliance with US EPA guidelines. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported a failure of regulatory protections against illegal dumping into state aquifers. Kern officials are being sued for a new crude oil terminal in Taft, through which two 100-car trains per day will travel, bearing the Candian tar sands, crude, or fracked oil from the Bakken formation - without public notice or CEQA review by the San Joaquin Valley air pollution district. Last year the state shut down a number of injection wells in Kern, setting a precedent for further action. Kern seems to be one big exemption to 21st-century environmental laws, and often proudly so. Daniel Day Lewis' There Will Be Blood echoes in the present. 

      Demanding that the governor protect the public health by independent research, monitoring and enforcement in Kern County and the Central Valley is less than a fracking moratorium but far more than the state has done for years, and connects the issues of greenhouse gas reductions and environmental justice in a potent combination.

      These issues are likely to be featured in congressional hearings led this year in California by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson, Arizona).

      The crisis is Kern resembles that of Mississippi in 1964, during the height of the civil rights movement. Oil is king in Kern, as cotton was king in the Delta then. Both economic systems rested on plantation labor, rigid policing, and national avoidance.  It took brave actions by a few before they eventually were joined by a wave of student organizers from SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which caused national attention and compelled federal intervention. In California, the farmworkers' movement rose in parallel to the southern civil rights movement, giving birth to several decades of unionization and rural legal assistance programs. Not long after, thousands of solidarity workers traveled to Central America to defend campesinos against brutal oligarchies.

      Is another solidarity movement on such a scale possible today? A "Mississippi Summer" of organizing? A televised expose like Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame"? A candidate like Robert F. Kennedy in Appalachia? A new generation of catechists embracing liberation theology? Or a Jesuit governor siding with the poor? At least an investment in long-term everyday organizing? 

      An equivalent movement in the Central Valley today might force the extension of constitutional protections against the poisoning of the poor now enslaved in the fracking fields of Kern. 

      A recent NASA photo (above) reveals a 2500 sq. mile cloud of methane rising over the four corners region and in Bakersfield, a sign of the growing threat posed by fracking.

      "It's a huge issue," says Bob Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. "Depending on where we are on this methane leakage, again, it's scary when you can start seeing it from space."  

      Meanwhile, two major two oil companies have pulled back from their fracking plans in central Los Angeles, leaving Kern as the main fortress of fracking. 

      The California Resources Corporation, a spinoff of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, abandoned its plans for fracking in Carson, several months after an aggressive but unsuccessful grass-roots Assembly campaign by Prophet Walker and local environmentalists. In addition, Freeport McMorAn, a global energy corporation based in Phoenix, suspended its drilling project in the West Adams District after massive community opposition there led to a draft fracking moratorium by City Council President Herb Wesson. The growing "community headache" was an unstated factor in the corporate decisions, according to Joanne Kim, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Coalition.

      Depressed oil prices and sharply lowered estimates of recoverable oil from the Monterrey Shale formation in Central California also have dampened industry's hopes for a fracking boom.

      Paradoxically, the heavily white and affluent voters of Santa Barbara County turned down a fracking moratorium on the ballot last November, while largely-Latino San Benito voted by 57 percent to impose one. The evidence is growing that communities of color will no longer accept their previous fate of being dumping grounds and sacrifice zones for industry. 

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      Reader Comments (3)

      California has no oil extraction tax or royalty it makes us look like the crazy people. If we pass a significant royalty they will think twice about fracking here. Alaska gets their entire state budget from oil royalties. California should stop giving away their oil for free. Fracking causes water pollution and even earthquakes. California cannot afford these parasitic oil companies.

      February 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hamilton

      Yours is an excellent analysis of the fracking situation here in California.

      A number of organizations-- among them Food & Water Watch, the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Physicians for Social Responsibility, plus local activists addressing the problems in their own backyards--are working to end fracking. Undoubtedly each has a strategy, but ideally they would work together to create a unified strategy. Perhaps a huge solidarity movement, as you've envisioned, is what we need. I fear that the inclination of people to focus on their own smaller geographical areas would make this difficult--but perhaps people could be convinced.

      Several years ago a two-day meeting of people representing these organizations and others, as well as unaffiliated individuals opposed to fracking, was convened. The goal was creation of a major coalition. The sticking point was that some favored a ban and others favored a moratorium. The coalition was never formed. And yet such a coalition is likely what we need.

      I know, Tom Hayden, that you have been addressing the topics of fracking and climate change during your various speaking engagements. I for one would like to know when and where you are appearing; I'd like to attend.

      Thanks for all you're doing.

      Rebecca Rona-Tuttle

      February 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Rona-Tuttle

      Mr. Hayden, are you a friend of the state or are you pushing an agenda for Jerry the Jesuit? Regulations haven't worked--too many exemptions and bland language in SB4. Also, the government can't move fast enough to protect communities against methane leaks, air and water contamination. Goals and reductions are well and fine but if you want to really make a difference, ban fracking! It doesn't matter what the color of the community is: if extreme oil extraction is viable, big oil will be there UNLESS THERE'S A BAN. This article reads like an introduction for Jerry Brown to campaign in Kern County under the guise of advocating for protections through regulations. This means Jerry Brown supports fracking so don't pretend to be doing something about public safety by pretending we can regulate fracking. Get your head out of the tar and get yourself on the bus to Oakland--be a part of the solidarity movement you question and show your support for the only viable solution--a statewide ban!

      February 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Turnbull
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