Community Voices: Why is California punishing our alternative energy leader?

Lorelei Oviatt is director of Kern County’s Planning and Natural Resources Department

Kern County, a dynamic and diverse region, continues to lead the nation in alternative energy production. The county’s businesses and residents have invested in producing more zero emission power than all the other 57 California counties combined, providing this resource to areas like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, San Francisco and Marin.

Kern County supplies more than 50 percent of the state’s renewable energy. Home to the largest wind farm area in the United States with more than 5,000 turbines, Kern is considered the “Wind Capital of the California.” Our region also houses the second largest solar farm in the nation with investment continuing to rise. Companies have come from all over the world and invested more than $68 billion in Kern County.

One would think this long-term leadership and commitment to supporting the state’s ambitious zero emission goals through siting and expedited permitting would come with some praise. Think again. State policies, adopted at different times, are now punishing the citizens and businesses of Kern County. According to the California State Board of Equalization as applied to alternative energy, state tax policy says, “when something of value is physically added to real property, the addition is assessed at current market value and this value is added to the existing base year value of the real property. When an active solar energy system is installed, it is not assessed, meaning that the existing assessment will not increase.”

Although alternative energy tax breaks for commercial scale solar reduce needed property tax revenues, Kern and other counties have accepted this policy to do their share and encourage alternative energy development. However, at the onset of this initiative, the loss of property tax was manageable because we were still allowed to drill for oil and collect tax revenue on this industry.

Now, the state has decided to change its policy on oil production, which is the cleanest and most regulated in the world, by denying and delaying permits for long-time operations in Kern County and further reducing property tax revenue for our region. For many years, the oil and gas industry contributed to the economic well-being of Kern County and its residents. Its revenue stream supports local services and programs, jobs, families and local businesses.

As the nation’s seventh highest oil producing county, Kern County has been the energy capital of California, serving as an essential energy conduit to families and businesses not only in the Golden State, but across the nation. Oil production has supplied thousands of well-paying jobs to Kern County residents, jobs that are now jeopardized. The oil and gas industry in Kern County employs more than 13,000 residents and an additional 8,300 residents indirectly or through economic induced impacts of the industry.

The curtailment of oil and gas production has impacted thousands of jobs, with only more implications on the horizon. In 2021, the Community Action Partnership of Kern released a Community Needs Assessment stating, “Kern’s employment evolves around the oil and agricultural industries. These industries allow many under-skilled and under-educated workers to earn a good wage and support their families. However, they are the most vulnerable when there are downturns in these industries causing long-term unemployment.”

While the state overflows with a $100 billion budget surplus, state policies are creating economic hardships including job losses, business closures, stunted growth in property values, and a significant loss of Kern County revenue that funds critical programs and essential services for nearly 1 million residents. California’s treatment of Kern County is not a model for the state or the nation; it’s an example of a confused policy that eliminates energy jobs, halts the production of California regulated oil, contributes to gasoline price increases, and shortchanges the people of Kern County who have invested in more alternative energy than any other county in the nation.

The people of Kern County are not asking for special treatment; they simply want to be treated fairly. Unfortunately, requests remain unanswered, but their hope remains. It is time for commitments from the administration to be tangible, comprehensive, long-term and provide sufficient support to Kern County and its residents.

Lorelei H. Oviatt, AICP, is the director of the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department.

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Kern Citizens for Energy