The battle between big oil and Central Valley residents: targeting low-income and communities of color

May 11, 2023 /

The battle between the Big Oil industry and Central Valley residents continues as the industry persists to target low-income and communities of color.

 “Oil and gas wells are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-wealth communities,” said The Last Chance Alliance. 

The Last Chance Alliance is an organization that aims to be an accomplice to communities who are fighting injustice in all of its forms—from Big Oil to police brutality—and reimagining a California that offers justice, dignity, and opportunity for all.  

Despite being a progressive state, California is the nation’s seventh-largest producer of crude oil and the third-largest oil refiner. Furthermore, the oil that is drilled in California ranks among the dirtiest globally. In the face of today’s climate crisis, oil and gas companies are benefiting from record profits. This has been the catalyst for grass root mobilization to combat the industry’s damaging effects.  

On Sunday, May 7th, The Big Oil Resistance Tour by The Last Chance Alliance gathered the Central Valley community in the Lamont’s David Head Center. The event began with speakers from The Last Chance Alliance informing the community about their mission to continue supporting those most impacted by the detrimental effects of oil drilling near homes and schools. 

The opening speakers also consisted of community leaders from the Central Valley. After this, there was a panel consisting of Kern County residents with testimonies consisting of direct consequences from Big Oil. Also on the panel were Sabal Dangi, a youth leader from Fresno’s Fridays for Future, and Tefere Gebre, chief program officer from Greenpeace USA, who came from the east coast to support organizing efforts in California.  

Among the various guest speakers in attendance were those most directly affected by the Big Oil industry. Their stories are some of the most devastating realities of the hazards of oil drilling. A local resident, Maria Martinez, shared her testimony on how the oil industry changed her life.  

“My family and I live near the oil refinery on Panama Lane. This has led to allergies and breathing issues for me and my family. Beyond the health hazards of oil drilling is also the labor abuse which takes place in oil fields,” said Martinez. “It is both physical and psychological abuse these workers face…They work long hours at a time without breaks…I lost my son in an accident in the oil fields. The industry just replaced him with another worker but for me I will never get my son back… I know this battle with Big Oil is very big because they are giants.”

Another local participant was Fransisco Gonzalez from Arvin. Gonzalez was directly affected by the 2013 oil leak incident which kept residents out of their homes for nine months. This happened as a result of a pipe running underneath homes in Arvin. On the day of the incident, the Fire Department wrongly reported to the residents of Arvin that they were in no danger. However, organizers from The Last Chance Alliance ran tests on the area and determined there to be a leak. The fire department returned to confirm this and evacuated residents in a two-hour time span. The community members were out of their homes for nine long months. 

“Many people ignore all of this and need more information. I wish more people would get organized with us at these events and join us,” said Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez and the community have continuously been fighting for more regulations on oil drilling. Their efforts and collaborations have seen victories but also retaliations and setbacks from the Big Oil industry. “The youth get to breathe in that contamination from that pump. The pump was there prior so we are told there is nothing that can be done. We fought for about 3 years with the Arvin City Council. We were able to pass a law so that drilling does not happen near homes,” said Gonzalez.  

Anabel Marquez, a resident of Kern County was another panelist at this event. She is a community leader of a garden and an activist for the end of Big Oil. She has been witnessing the dangers of contamination due to oil drilling for years. She noted that oil drilling happens in close proximity to schools and homes causing extensive health concerns for Kern County residents. Additionally, Marquez pointed out that we have drilling between pistachio fields and that contaminated water is utilized to irrigate agriculture fields around oil wells. 

“I tell those who are not informed that please get out of your comfort. Get out of the comfort of your couch, take a break from your phone, from TikTok, and see what is happening. Go out into the world and see all that is happening. What the news does not show us. We are living through something very bad and dirty and contaminated. This is something we need to fight all together,” said Marquez.  

Despite efforts from groups like The Last Chance Alliance and the community, Big Oil groups continue to be huge contaminators for low-income and communities of color. Yet, the youth leaders from Fridays for Future remain optimistic and call on the youth of California to stand up against the oppressive Big Oil industry. Founder of Fridays for Future and panelist for this event, Sabal Dangi addressed the concerns Californians might have with abandoning the use of fossil fuels and what has been the norm for so long.  

“If we just take it back to our own ecosystems, our own nature we are constantly changing we are constantly evolving. So, while oil has been something we have largely depended on it is not sustainable. As we grow as humans as our planet increases, the growing burden on future generations increases. So, while oil may be something we’ve depended on it is not a renewable resource. We need to find different solutions. We need to slowly phase out… We are not asking for a complete stoppage of oil, we are asking to phase out fossil fuels and that happens over time… over time we adapt, we learn, and we grow to new strategies and new solutions,” said Dangi.  

The Last Chance Alliance invites all Californians to join their efforts to put more restrictions on new oil drilling as it is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5c. They are calling out Governor Newsome to use his executive authority to stop issuing permits for expanding oil drilling. The group is also calling for President Biden to declare a climate emergency in the nation.  

Even with all the disappointments the community has experienced and the extensive power struggle between profits over people, the community remains resilient and committed to ending the power of Big Oil in their communities. United they chant, “The People United will never be defeated.” 

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