The Cancers from Kern

Governor Jerry Brown long has rejected either a ban or a moratorium on fracking in California like those adopted in New York state and France, where citizen outcry has prevailed. Brown’s alternative has been to beef up the state’s regulatory apparatus with serious environmental scientists and additional staff, claiming the permitting and monitoring system will be the toughest in America.

That may not turn out be true. The federal Environmental Protection Agency claims that the California has failed to implement monitoring and control over its well injection system – for decades.

There’s no doubt that Brown has dispatched new personnel to take over DOGGR, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, symbolized by a reforming new director, Steven Bohlen. But DOGGR, long a bastion of the fossil fuel lobby centered in Kern County, may be beyond reformable.

The staggering violations of health and environmental law in Kern are chronic and endemic, going back to the early 20th century, as captured in the film “There Will Be Blood”, based on Upton Sinclair’s novel 1926 novel, Oil!

The latest exposes came as a result of Brown’s own regulatory reforms (SB 4), which expanded the state’s disclosure requirements to reveal that fracking waste liquids contain levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, at, “thousands of times greater than state and federal agencies consider safe.”.

The legislature will hold public hearings on the findings in Sacramento on Mar. 10. DOGGR itself will come under the spotlight like never before. Gaps in current law will be sharply questioned, like the lack of requirements to test for specific carcinogens.

Most far-reaching is the quarrel between the federal and state branches of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the failures of required regulation over its oil fields in the Central Valley. The federal EPA regional administrator, Jared Bernstein, says the state’s record keeping isn’t even a system at all. Under a 1983 agreement with the Deukmejien administration, the Reagan White House delegated the monitoring and oversight tasks to the state. Since that era, the feds have faulted California for inadequate monitoring and collection of information.

One observer at a Bakersfield hearing last week reported that the Kern oil interests are pushing back hard. “They feel aggrieved”, the observer noticed, “because after doing business one way – outside the law – and now being told that things are changing after sixty years.” The culture of cronyism and inertia, once disrupted, is likely to lead to angry resistance against the state. Local critics in Kern often complain for their lives and safety.

The state’s new regulations under SB 4 are nearing finalization, and a comprehensive new state report on fracking will be released in June. The Brown administration cannot and will not simply cave to its foes in the fossil fuel industry, nor hope to dangle rewards for “voluntary” compliance. The long years of institutionalized collusion, like the collusion between northern liberals and southern segregationists, are grinding to an end. The administration faces a hardline and defiant opposition, which may well refuse to bend during the governor’s final years in office, taking their chances on the legislature and the next governor.

The dominant oil company in Kern is not a marginal wildcatter but a global behemoth, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum. Some environmental activists already are considering a new campaign against Occidental similar to those mounted by rainforest and environmental justice activists in the past.

This piece follows up, Kern, the Mississippi of Fracking by Tom Hayden


Vien Truong of the Greenlining Institute, a keynote speaker at the October Marin conference, has authored a must-read article on the necessary connections between reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing justice and opportunity for excluded populations (like the communities of color in Kern.