California’s Addiction to Oil and Gas Is Poisoning Black People

The state portrays itself as a leader in climate action but is still a top U.S. oil producer. And it’s not good for Black Californians.

Aerial view of pits containing production water from oil wells near Hwy. 33 and Lokern Road on February 25, 2015 in Kern County, CA. Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Planning Commission of Kern County, California, recommended that the county’s board of supervisors approve the fast-tracking of over 67,000 new oil and gas wells. Kern County already has more than 35,000 active oil and gas wells, some of which have leaked oil into the Kern River’s watershed, and living near them has been impacting the health of the county’s residents.

Kern County is predominantly Latinx, and its median household income is nearly 30% less than the state as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There aren’t many Black folx in Kern, who make up 6.3% of the county’s population, but California’s addiction to oil and gas — which I cover in this week’s Color of Climate, a weekly column at Momentum’s sibling publication Future Human — has been affecting large Black communities throughout the state.

Let’s start with Los Angeles, one of the birthplaces of California’s oil boom in the late 1800s. I remember the shock I experienced the first time I saw the Inglewood Oil Field. As I pulled up to a burrito spot for lunch, I saw the oil field. It was the first time I’d seen an active pumpjack with an urban backdrop, and I was legit angry.

That oil field, one of the most productive in the Los Angeles oil basin, runs through and next to Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, and Inglewood, some of the Blackest parts of L.A. County. In 2019, the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club called out the oil field for threatening the public health of the surrounding community.

And then there’s the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, which I touched on in this week’s Color of Climate along with Kern County. For at least 30 years, the refinery has been polluting the air of predominantly Black parts of Richmond through its normal operations alone but has also had several acute incidents of environmental justice. In 2012, a massive fire at the refinery sent over 15,000 area residents to local hospitals for medical treatment.

These three hubs for oil production are in each of the three biggest regions of California — Northern, Southern, and Central — and they all have two things in common. The first is that they all threaten the public health and safety of Black, Latinx, and poor folx. The second is that the state of California, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, can’t seem to take decisive action to shut down these facilities to protect the health of Black, Latinx, and poor folx.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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