BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Gas flares rise up from the refinery at the edge of town. To Jesus Alonso, the 85-year-old facility owned by Kern Oil & Refining Co. is a bracing symbol of environmental damage in Kern County, where three-quarters of California oil is produced.
Growing up in Lamont, a town of 15,000 just outside Bakersfield, Alonso didn't connect his family's health problems to the oil refinery up the road. But the foul smell was constant.
"Everyone had breathing problems," he said. "Everyone had nosebleeds."
The American Lung Association in its 2020 air quality report ranks Bakersfield as the most polluted city in the nation for average annual levels of dangerously high particle pollution. The city is second for short-term pollution spikes, a ranking Bakersfield has held in eight out of the last 10 reports. Large swaths of the region are out of compliance with federal air standards for ozone and soot, which contribute to asthma and other chronic breathing problems.
Now COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, is striking the hardest in areas of the country where exposure to air pollution has been a persistent public health threat, according to a study out of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
California has about 45,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,800 reported deaths from the virus, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. Los Angeles County, with more than 10 million people, has the largest concentration of confirmed cases and deaths in the state. Here in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which has about one-tenth of the population, Kern County health officials have reported five deaths.
But there's growing concern about racial and ethnic disparities. A Los Angeles Times analysis of state health data found that Latinos between the ages of 18 and 49 are dying of the virus at a faster rate than their share of the population.
The Kern Oil refinery in southeastern Bakersfield borders the mostly Latino communities of Fuller Acres to the east and Lamont to the south. For years, the refinery's effect on people's lungs has been a source of anxiety for those living just outside its fence line.
People in the area say they feel neglected by their elected officials and overlooked by the neighboring refinery. Concern about the poor air quality in Kern County has animated citizens groups, which last month filed a lawsuit challenging the regional air regulator's approach to pollution monitoring around the refinery.
That comes on the heels of local and federal regulatory actions in recent months that penalized the refinery for failing to comply with other toxic air reporting requirements.
Here, the near-total collapse of the U.S. oil market in April has added to the broader economic decline affecting the nation and the county of 900,000. Its unemployment rate hit 12% in March.
"A lot of our community has lost hours or have completely lost work," Alonso said.
"Those that haven't have been deemed essential workers," he added, "but that puts them at a higher risk of contracting the disease."
'Complicated mess of emissions'
Alonso, 29, works with community groups in Kern County to set up air monitoring equipment. He tells his neighbors that the air doesn't always smell in other parts of the state. The sky isn't hazy everywhere.
He says the region's problems are bound together: sickness resulting from poor air quality, schools that struggle to graduate students, high unemployment and a sense that public officials aren't working in their citizens' best interest.
Those conditions worsen the closer people live to two oil refineries here, Kern Oil and San Joaquin Refining Co., according to an analysis of demographic and health data by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
The Kern Oil refinery processes roughly 26,000 barrels of oil per day. It's the biggest maker of gasoline and diesel for Kern County. It's dwarfed by refineries around Los Angeles and San Francisco that process shipments of foreign oil to feed the giant West Coast fuel market.
The company is facing headwinds on two fronts: On one hand, it's battling regulators and local groups over emissions. California drivers are also abiding by stay-at-home orders, taking a big slice out of West Coast gasoline demand.
In late April, oil prices plummeted into negative territory after U.S. refiners refused to accept more oil. Millions of barrels of global oil demand has vanished in the span of two months, an unprecedented collapse that's buffeting producers and refiners everywhere.
Marathon Petroleum Corp. this week planned to idle its 161,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Martinez, Calif., outside of San Francisco, because of weaker gasoline demand.
Back in Kern County, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in March on behalf of citizens groups from Lamont and other nearby towns. They'd like the court to overturn a regional air district rule that narrowly interpreted state air monitoring requirements that apply to Kern Oil.
A failed eleventh-hour effort in Sacramento last fall to exempt the refinery from those requirements led to a public outcry over the tactics of local politicians.
"It's really a complicated mess of emissions," said Genevieve Gale, former executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. "The oil and gas industry is emitting hundreds of tons of pollutants into one of the most polluted areas of the country."
In December, EPA hit the refinery with a civil penalty for ignoring a federal requirement to report emissions from its flares and leaky equipment.
The settlement that Kern Oil signed with EPA and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District imposed a $500,000 penalty. It alleged the refinery didn't monitor sulfur dioxide emissions after it installed equipment in 2006 to make cleaner-burning diesel. Kern Oil also allegedly wasn't reporting leaky valves that were releasing a bundle of chemicals that pollute the air and damage people's lungs.
The refinery continues to amass Clean Air Act violations. It's had 12 quarters running with significant violations, according to EPA, and federal and state authorities have logged 171 formal enforcement actions against Kern Oil since 2015.
That is more than the number of enforcement actions since 2015 reported against Chevron Corp.'s much larger refinery in Richmond, Calif., outside San Francisco — even if the amount of harmful chemicals exiting the Kern Oil facility is far smaller.
Advocates trying to improve California's poor urban air quality for years have pressed for robust, real-time monitoring of refinery pollution. In 2015, EPA adopted a national rule requiring refineries to set up fenceline monitoring of benzene, a carcinogen that's showing up at elevated levels around refineries in inner-city Philadelphia, outside Houston and in rural New Mexico.
In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation mandating that California refineries install air monitors around their perimeter and start collecting public data for a broader array of pollutants by January 2020. The law required monitors to pick up emissions near schools, hospitals and other sensitive populations.
A.B. 1647 passed easily, and its sponsor, Los Angeles Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), said the scope of the law was unmistakable. "It was very clear in its intention to cover all petroleum refineries, especially polluters located near low-income communities of color," he told E&E News.
'This is home'
Lamont and its neighbor Fuller Acres are about two hours' drive northeast of Los Angeles, across a mountain range separating the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert.
The communities support the Central Valley's low-wage agricultural economy. Lamont is one of many small towns up and down the valley that sheltered Dust Bowl migrants in the 1930s.
Today, one-third of Lamont is under the poverty line, according to a federal estimate.
Alonso's parents migrated from Mexico. His father worked in the farm fields of the Central Valley. The value of education was something Alonso's mother tried to instill in him. She graduated from high school in Mexico, Alonso explained, but it didn't help her find a job or get ahead when she arrived in the United States. When Alonso was 8 years old, his mother earned a high school equivalency degree at a school in Bakersfield.
After high school, Alonso moved to Oakland to train to be a community organizer. He returned to Lamont to raise his now 3-year-old son and currently works for the nonprofit group Clean Water Action. Next month, he'll graduate from Bakersfield College.
"This is home," he said. "We are doing everything we can to make it safe and healthy. We want the best opportunities for our son."
Neighborhoods closest to the Kern Oil refinery, most of which are inside Lamont and Fuller Acres, have a rate of residents with no high school diploma two times higher than the rest of Kern County. That was the largest education disparity near any refinery in the country, according to the Investigative Reporting Workshop data analysis.
Near the San Joaquin refinery, according to the analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data and census tracts, people live with elevated rates of heart disease, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compared with the rest of Kern County.
"People are put in terrible positions of having to weigh what's more important: their jobs and livelihoods, or their health," said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.
The state Legislature's Latino caucus includes members from the southern Central Valley. Still, people in those mostly Latino neighborhoods bordering the refinery say they tend to steer clear of politics and activism. They say it hasn't translated to support for the community.
Republicans and moderate Democratic candidates tend to win elections in the central part of the state, especially in Kern County, which President Trump carried by a margin of 15% in the 2016 election. And voter turnout among voting-age citizens in Kern County is lower than in most counties in California. Only 34% of eligible voters across the county showed up to the polls in November 2018. Just 25% of the county's eligible Latino voters turned out for that election, according to data analyzed by USC's Civic Engagement Project.
"There are a lot of voters in the community that feel neglected by our representatives," Alonso said. "We feel easily forgotten."
In Kern County, two things happened in 2018 and 2019.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which regulates pollution from Bakersfield to Modesto, took virtually no formal steps to implement the new state law mandating air monitoring around refinery perimeters and in nearby communities.
At the same time, Kern County's Statehouse delegation pursued an exemption for small petroleum refiners.
As the Legislature wound down last fall, two Democrats representing Bakersfield used a bill meant to support volunteer firefighters to advance a carve-out for Kern Oil. It redefined "refineries" to exclude those producing less than 55,000 barrels of oil a day. It also excluded any refinery with fewer than 3,000 residents living within 1 mile of the facility.
Kern Oil fit that description.
The sponsors, Assembly Member Rudy Salas and state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, cast the effort as an attempt to get clearer legislative language in place. The law, they said, was always designed for urban giants like the Richmond refinery and Marathon's Carson refinery near the Port of Los Angeles, the largest on the West Coast.
Health and environmental justice groups pounced when they got wind of the effort to write into law an exemption for Kern Oil. Facing pressure, Salas and Hurtado pulled the bill.
Salas, in an email, said the bill was not about exempting Kern Oil. It was about avoiding duplication across monitoring programs. It would have bought more time for "clean air mitigation investments" that Kern Oil was already planning, he said, instead of that money going to new fenceline monitors.
Melinda Hicks, Kern Oil's manager of government affairs, said it's no secret the company was pushing for a legislative exemption. But Kern is committed to being a good neighbor. "We take very seriously the residents that do live in close proximity to us," she said.
The episode that played out in Sacramento last fall brought to the foreground the tensions around air quality in the Central Valley. And it shined a light on tactics used by local leaders to shield the oil industry from tougher environmental oversight.
During the eight years under Brown, the state's oil and gas lobby had amassed political clout in Sacramento. It spent freely on moderate Democrats to blunt the effect of California's aggressive climate policies.
When the legislative effort failed last fall, attention turned to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District's work interpreting the law. The district adopted two rules: one for large refineries and another for the scrum of smaller ones in the region, including Kern Oil.
The rule allowed Kern Oil to monitor and report emissions of a smaller subset of toxic chemicals: hydrogen sulfide, which is deadly and explosive; sulfur dioxide, which can exacerbate asthma; and a group of particularly toxic compounds in oil that are tied to lung disease and can harm people's immune systems: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Benzene has been linked with leukemia.
Environmental groups lambasted the rule, saying it excluded too many other dangerous chemicals. California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment identified 18 chemicals as "top candidates" for monitoring.
Morgan Lambert, the San Joaquin district's deputy pollution control officer, reemphasized the refinery's position: that monitoring for a full suite of chemical emissions wasn't meant for small refiners like Kern Oil. Under the rule, Kern Oil also has until at least 2021 to begin fenceline monitoring.
"It completely caved to industry demand," said Oscar Espino-Padron, a Los Angeles-based attorney for Earthjustice.
Espino-Padron represents groups from towns near the refinery in a lawsuit filed last month in California Superior Court. The suit alleges the public was mostly shut out of the rulemaking process. And in the end, the suit claims, the rule "contained arbitrary limits" on the number of pollutants the refinery would monitor.
'Make Oil Great Again'
Alonso joined more than 1,000 people at a Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting in January. He went to observe a crowd there to rally support for the oil industry, which was fighting the tougher line being taken by regulators under Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Signatures were collected in support of an election to recall Newsom. People donned red "Make Oil Great Again" hats.
Late last year, Newsom placed a temporary moratorium on new drilling permits in the Central Valley's heavy oil reservoirs. He fired his top oil regulator, and in the fall, the state fined Chevron $2.7 million for spilling a million gallons of oil in Kern County.
Oil jacks dot Kern County towns like Arvin and McKittrick. But production in California has been declining since 1985. California oil production now trails Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, where lighter crude and more natural gas are produced.
Now, a noisy rally to defend oil's political interests in California would be a luxury for the industry. Stay-at-home orders because of the pandemic and jobless rates not seen since the Great Depression have decimated the economy, from movie studios and hotels to agriculture and refineries. Newsom has emerged alongside Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York as rising stars among Democratic governors who acted swiftly in March to order people to stay inside and shut down schools and businesses in response to the public health crisis.
Newsom has been threading a needle since taking office in 2019. He faces pressure from environmental groups to ban oil and gas drilling and move toward a phaseout of fossil fuels. But petroleum jobs remain a political lever in California's central region, where unemployment rates are more than double the state average.
Oil still supports thousands of jobs and accounts for about 15% of Kern County's property tax receipts, according to county officials. The region's conservative establishment, which includes Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the top Republican in the U.S. House, hasn't been shy about confronting the popular governor over his energy policies.
County Supervisor Zack Scrivner, the public official who helped spearhead the industry rally in Bakersfield, says oil is a crucial source of revenue for the county. When oil prices fell from nearly $150 a barrel at their peak in July 2008 to $36 a barrel by the end of that year, he said it blew a $44 million hole in the county's general fund.
"Imagine if the oil industry goes away completely, the damage that would do to the county for providing basic services," he said.
The county's been taking steps to stem the annual production declines. One such effort hit a legal snag in February, when a state appeals court tossed out a 2015 zoning change that offered drillers streamlined environmental reviews. Critics argued that would mean thousands of well permits going to drillers without analyzing the effect on air, water and wildlife.
Abandoned wells across Kern County have raised concerns about water contamination and toxic fumes.
The governor's staff says the idea that the oil industry is being put out of business by being more closely regulated isn't true. California processed and issued thousands of drilling permits in 2019, it noted.
Earlier this month, Newsom's administration began issuing fracking permits again, handing out two dozen for wells in Kern County.
Scrivner downplayed the power the county has to improve air quality tied to the oil fields and refineries.
The problems facing Lamont and Fuller Acres didn't come up at the January board meeting.