Bakersfield, Kern County

I was fortunate to spend a couple of days in Bakersfield, the capital of Kern County, and (arguably) the energy capital of California. To pinch some stats from the Kern Economic Development Corporation, 70% of California’s oil and 60% of its renewables come from the County. That’s huge. A recurring theme in my conversations with people in the energy sector was California’s desire to reduce oil and gas use and increase renewables – this makes a place like Kern ground zero for energy transition (or ‘energy evolution’ as a few of the local industry folks term it).

Unlike the Mid West of WA, which is seeing renewables, hydrogen or CCS as pure additionality, Kern is actively looking at how these sectors can replace the traditional, century-old oil and gas industry. Needless to say this is challenging as new energy projects tend to employ less people (certainly in the operational phase) than oil and gas. As such, it’s forced the County to look at the new sectors through a critical employment and economic develop lens, arguably ahead of the environmental benefits that they will bring. There is concern that a rapid shift away from fossil fuels without a commensurate suite of (equally) high-paying jobs at roughly similar skill levels will see the County suffer from both economic and population decline, as the the financial inputs from oil and gas depart, potentially along with some of the workforce, to places with less ambitious climate targets (like Texas).

As a result, there is significant effort being spent on thinking about upskilling, reskilling and training – and the California Renewable Energy Laboratory (CREL) at the Kern Community College District is undertaking significant work in this space. Perhaps one of the key things that I took away from my meeting with the team there is the value of training in terms of both creating new workforce, but also educating the broader public about new technologies (such as electric vehicles, agrovoltaics and CCS). The public education is a key piece of the social licence puzzle – if people understand something, there is a greater chance for them to have an informed discussion about its relative merits and downsides.

The County, who were willing to meet with me, are well aware of the challenges and are looking at a suite of options to try to address the potential financial and population losses. A politically ‘red’ County in the middle of a very ‘blue’ state, Kern is an interesting place. In some ways, it reminds me of WA’s relationship to the rest of Australia – home to a lot of industry, a significant economic contributor, but figuratively and/or literally a long way from the Capital and the decisions that are made there. Counties have more powers and revenue-raising capacity than local governments in Australia, and Kern has actively sought to foster a pro-business approach. Proponents speak highly of the approach, and some suggested that projects like the proposed Direct Air Capture (DAC)/CCS Hub – whilst they could be sited elsewhere, stood the best chance of getting permitted and progressing in Kern.

The DAC Hub and CCS were key topics of discussion at California State University Bakersfield’s Carbon Management and Energy Innovation Symposium, which I was fortunate to attend. The County and State are certainly advancing in terms of newer (borderline experimental) technology like DAC – and the region has a number of comparative advances for CCS (existing oil and gas industry, underground pore space). Despite the existing industry, the topic of social licence was still raised, and highlighted a few universal themes:

  • There is scepticism that CCS is just a way for oil and gas to continue producing hydrocarbons (and an underlying distrust of the sector in some quarters)
  • There are concerns about impacts on groundwater and the risk of CO2 leakage (from both underground and pipelines/facilities)
  • CCS is, generally speaking, not well understood – even in places with a large oil and gas presence

The slide below came from one of the presentations (Ann Rogan from Edge Collaborative), and could be equally applied to almost any energy project, anywhere:

My drive out of Bakersfield on Saturday morning, saw me going past fields and fields of pumpjacks (as can be found in the image for this blog post) – as ubiquitous in the landscape as the wind turbines between Mojave and Tehachapi and the solar farms near Rosamond – and a great counterpoint to the way the energy sector in Kern County is evolving.

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