California Oil Sees Ally in Trump, Even If He Can’t Really Help Them

Falling oil prices have triggered lay offs in Kern County.

Falling oil prices have triggered lay offs in Kern County. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

President Trump has vowed to bolster the country’s oil and gas industry by rolling back environmental regulations.

But it may not make much of a difference for California oil. The industry’s success is tied to a broad mix of influences, some outside the scope of federal law.

In Kern County, in the heart of California’s oil country, 53 percent of voters chose Trump in November and support for the President is strong. The county, at the southern end of the Central Valley, produces 70 percent of the oil pumped out of the ground here and is one of this blue state’s pockets of dark red.

But ask most oil folks if they think Trump will make a difference to their industry, and the answer is largely the same.

“Not really, no,” says Chad Hathaway, who owns a small oil company in Bakersfield.

Driving through town, you can’t miss how big oil is here — there are oil wells on the main streets of town.

“People are close,” says Hathaway. “We are family and when part of the family hurts, everybody feels it.”

People here hit a low point last year when oil dropped to $26 a barrel, a quarter of what it was three years ago. Many companies laid off workers.

Hathaway, a tall, 40-year-old guy with a determined streak, rode out the downturn by cutting pay. In December, he was able to drill some new oil wells and hire a few people.

Chad Hathaway owns an oil company in Bakersfield.
Chad Hathaway owns an oil company in Bakersfield. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

“I had one of the roughnecks come up to me said, ‘You know what? My family, just having a job at Christmas time meant a lot to us,’” Hathaway says. “That’s meaningful.”

And that’s what it came down to on election day, when Hathaway filled out his ballot.

“If you ask me the biggest reason why I voted for Trump, it’s because they forgot the middle class,” he says about the Democrats. “They completely forgot those guys that are out there working on that rig.”

To Hathaway, Kern County is a forgotten part of California, overlooked by cities on the coast where the economic upswing has returned full-force.

“It’s like the people from LA and San Francisco,” he says. “They fly over this area all the time. They see all these farm fields and they can’t see the oil wells. But they don’t realize what we do to keep this state moving on daily basis.”

Hathaway is even a supporter of California’s booming solar industry. “I have a lot of solar,” he says. “I’m a huge solar guy. If it makes sense, I’ll do it. I am not stupid.”

Hathaway says he gets into Facebook battles with family members in the Bay Area who don’t understand this part of the state, or his support for Trump.

“They just don’t understand,” he says. “How are we so dumb down here to think that this guy is actually going to do something for us? Well, nobody else was doing it for us before.”

But, as even Hathaway acknowledges, there may be little Trump can do for the state’s oil industry.

California is the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation, but production has been declining since the mid-1980s.

That’s because the major economic driver for the industry is the price of oil. It rises and falls due to global market forces, including the international consortium OPEC, which is largely beyond President Trump’s reach.

The other reason is that California has a major say in environmental regulations.

“Ninety percent of my problems are with Sacramento,” Hathaway says.

Hathaway doesn’t disparage all environmental regulations. ““Some are good,” he says. “Some are meaningful. Some are not.”

He was glad to see Trump get rid of a rule about air pollution, which regulated methane from oil and gas wells. Nonetheless, California has its own version of that rule. So Hathaway won’t see much of a difference.

But other people here in Kern County are feeling more optimistic, because there are policies where the federal government holds sway.

“We’re in a good mood,” says Les Clark. He’s been in oil since 1965, but now runs a trade association called the Independent Oil Producers’ Agency.

We meet up in Taft, a small town west of Bakersfield that was built around oil.  Clark’s granddaughter is playing in the Friday night basketball game at the high school, where he knows almost everyone.

Clark says the federal government controls some rules, like ones relating to oil industry wastewater. The federal EPA is currently reviewing where oil companies can dispose of that water, so Clark thinks the Trump Administration could make it easier.

“I think it’s going to help us, yeah,” he says. “I think a lot of those guys, they understand that some of these regulations are very onerous.”

Still, California lawmakers have said they plan to fight every inch of backsliding on environmental rules. A proposed legislative package would lock in protections for water and air in the event the Trump Administration changes them.

That federal-state push and pull is what Clark and others here in Kern County are watching. They’re waiting to see if Trump’s victory in November is actually a victory for them

Author

Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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