Meet the Millennial Mayor Who Took On Big Oil—and Won

Meet the Millennial Mayor Who Took On Big Oil—and Won

Meet the Millennial Mayor Who Took On Big Oil—and Won

Jose Gurrola is just 25, with barely 20,000 constituents, but he’s managed to put California’s powerful oil industry on the defensive.


Jose Gurrola is the mayor of Arvin, a small city at the southern tip of California’s San Joaquin Valley. By the time we met, several months back, I had heard him described in various ways, many of them unpleasant. A prominent talk-radio host asked if Gurrola had become the most hated man in Kern County, the rectangular swath of land that surrounds both Arvin and the nearby city of Bakersfield. The executive director of an influential local group, Kern Citizens for Energy, said that the mayor exemplified what “people hate about politicians” and that his actions represented something “truly tragic.” One commenter on the site of the Bakersfield Californian, the region’s largest newspaper, dismissed Gurrola as little more than a “millienial [sic] mayor still living with his mom.”

In his cramped office in City Hall, sparsely decorated with family photos and a print of Diego Rivera, Gurrola shrugged off the criticism. About his age, of course, there is no doubt: He is young. Gurrola is 25, and he was elected mayor of Arvin in 2016, at the age of 23. Before that, he beat out five candidates for a City Council seat while still a 19-year-old college sophomore. This was initially more novelty than controversy. After winning the council race, he stated that he would focus on crime prevention, the softest of political targets. But that was before a gas pipeline leak in Arvin forced eight families to evacuate their homes; before he learned about the dangers posed to the groundwater by fracking; before he began to draw connections between the region’s high rates of asthma—which he suffers from himself—and the proliferation of massive oil drilling operations. In Kern County, where the oil and gas industry wields enormous political power, this line of discovery was destined to confront a much harder political target.

“If you want to move up in politics here, you’ve got to cozy up to oil,” Gurrola said. It was late afternoon, and he was dressed in a blue-collared shirt and dark slacks, his round face no longer quite boyish. Kern County, which is larger than the states of Connecticut and Delaware combined, is home to more than 40,000 active oil and gas wells, which produced 123 million barrels of oil in 2017, representing 70 percent of the state’s oil wealth, along with 115 million Mcf of gas (each Mcf represents a thousand cubic feet). The county’s top taxpayers are fossil-fuel behemoths like Chevron and the California Resource Corporation, a spin-off of Occidental Petroleum. “What we’re doing here, I know it’s not good politics,” Gurrola said.

In 2016, Gurrola and the City Council began looking at proposals for new limits on oil and gas operations in the city. These included a ban on new drilling in residential zones and within 300 feet of hospitals, parks, and schools, in addition to the potential hiring of compliance monitors—to be paid for by well operators—to enforce the ordinance. The industry fought back hard: It was used to facing opposition to fracking in liberal cities like Los Angeles, but this sort of homegrown rebellion was unprecedented. Lobbyists descended on the city to make their case: Regulations are complicated, best left to the professionals, they argued; and why write new regulations, when Arvin could just adopt Kern County’s oil and gas ordinance? Several years earlier, the oil and gas industry had spent millions of dollars to create that ordinance, which allowed tens of thousands of wells to be drilled without individual environmental studies. It was working just fine, the lobbyists said.

“We said nope,” Gurolla told me.

So the oil industry sent representatives to testify against the proposal, which they described as a “virtual ban” on drilling that would lead to job losses. Letters of opposition followed from a who’s who of powerful groups: the Kern Economic Development Corporation, the Kern Taxpayers Association, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A representative for the powerful State Building and Construction Trades Council called Gurrola on his cell phone with concerns about the ordinance.

“They thought they could come in and tell a small city what to do, because Kern County values are ‘drill baby drill,’” said Gurrola. The residents of Arvin, 93 percent of whom are Latino, had other ideas. They knocked on doors and showed up at council hearings, overwhelming the industry voices of opposition. In July 2018, the ordinance passed unanimously. After the vote, the room exploded into applause and chants.

In his office, I asked Gurrola why the oil industry had waged such a vigorous campaign to stop the ordinance. His city, after all, has a little more than 20,000 people, and at most a dozen active wells. What made Arvin so important?

“I think what they saw in me, and in the city council, was somebody that they could not control, a group of millennials that were not going to bow down to their political threats.” He rested his elbows on his desk and flashed a quick smile. “They’re worried that it’s going to spread to other communities.”

Stories about Arvin usually highlight the challenges facing the city. There are many to choose from. For more than a decade, Arvin’s water has been contaminated with arsenic, forcing many residents to drink and cook with bottled water. The city is surrounded by fields of crops treated with pesticides, which can drift, and pose special threats to pregnant women and children. Many Arvin residents work in those fields, a hard occupation that garners low pay. Nearly 30 percent of Arvin residents are poor, more than twice the state average. Just 2 percent above the age of 25 have graduated from college.

And then there is the air. Arvin sits near the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains, which traps the air of the San Joaquin Valley. That trapped air is dirty, caused in part by the industries that dominate Kern County: oil and gas, agriculture, and dairy. The combination of geography and industry has created another string of grim statistics. For 18 straight years, Kern County has received an “F” in air quality from the American Lung Association for both ozone and particle pollution. About one in four children in the San Joaquin Valley have asthma, the highest rate of any region in California. And a recent analysis of state data found that residents of Kern County die from chronic lower respiratory diseases, like asthma, at a rate 12 times higher than the rest of the state, and 28 times higher than residents of San Francisco.

“Oil and gas production operations dominate the contributions for a variety of toxic air contaminants in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Dr. Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute that studies the connections between energy production, the environment, and public health. Shonkoff worked on a landmark 2015 report, commissioned by the state, which looked at the impact of oil and gas activities. The study found that the industry is responsible for emitting more than half of all benzene and formaldehyde—both known human carcinogens—along with hexane and acetaldehyde. It is also responsible for 70 percent of hydrogen sulfide emissions, which can cause airway restrictions for sufferers of asthma, and 31 percent of sulfur oxide emissions, a gas that can damage lungs, trigger asthma attacks, and contribute to fine particle pollution.

These facts were not known to Estela Escoto when her family moved from Los Angeles to Arvin in 2006. She had dreamed of giving her two children the benefits of a small-town upbringing: less traffic, quiet neighborhoods, clean air. “We didn’t do our research,” she said softly in Spanish, chuckling. “We figured out, little by little, about all of the pollution.” A year after the family fled the polluted skies of Los Angeles, Arvin was named the smoggiest city in the country. Instead of roaming free, Escoto’s children spent many afternoons cooped up inside, sheltering in place.

Escoto was seated at a conference table inside the office of the Committee for a Better Arvin (CBA), a local organization that played a pivotal role in passing the drilling ordinance. Escoto, 57, is president of the group, and while she speaks softly, she has the bearing of someone not easily intimidated. “When you live here, you realize that there is pollution everywhere, and that it won’t get better until we do something about it,” she said.

Escoto has been involved with CBA almost from the beginning. The group formed in 2007 to monitor the cleanup of a Superfund site on the eastern end of town, where for decades an agricultural chemicals company had improperly disposed of pesticides. From there, the group moved on to challenge the use of pesticides as well as the toxic fumes of a nearby composting plant. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that CBA turned its attention to the oil and gas industry.

The catalyst was the gas leak that overwhelmed eight houses in a neighborhood near Arvin High School. For months, residents had suffered nosebleeds and headaches; one pregnant woman fainted as she walked to the bathroom. When the Department of Health visited, they discovered gas levels in some homes that were high enough to pose a danger of explosion. A team from Arvin’s “bucket brigade,” a grassroots air-monitoring effort, took air samples and found a mixture of 20 toxic gases inside one residence, including high levels of benzene. The eight families were immediately evacuated.

The source of the leak was an underground pipe owned by a company called Petro Capital Resources, which moved gas captured while drilling for oil. No one knew how long it had been leaking. In fact, the pipe had never been inspected for leaks: It was less than four inches in diameter, and, at the time, the state only regulated pipes that were at least four inches wide. (Last year, California passed a law to fix this loophole.)

Among the neighborhood’s residents was Jose Gurrola, then a City Council member. His family wasn’t among those evacuated, but in response he proposed a 45-day moratorium on “drilling, redrilling, or deepening” any wells in Arvin. “It was very difficult to find out what was going on,” he told me. “If we can’t find out what’s going on with this pipe, do we even know what’s going on with all the other pipelines in the city?”

When the Kern County Board of Supervisors learned about the proposed moratorium, one of their members, Leticia Perez, whose southern region includes Arvin, asked the City Council to wait before voting on the moratorium. The proposal was defeated by a 3 to 2 vote. I reached out to Perez but didn’t hear back; nonetheless, the county works very closely with the oil and gas industry, and a moratorium was certainly something it opposed.

Arvin’s ordinance last year might have gone down to defeat, too, if not for an infusion of younger politicians, a spirited organizing effort by CBA, and the backing of Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general. By 2018, four of the five city leaders were millennials who had grown up in a city dotted with oil-pump jacks. The idea of creating a buffer zone between new drilling operations and places like schools sounded like common sense. In the weeks leading up to the July vote, Escoto and members of CBA knocked on doors to seek signatures in support of the ordinance. They eventually collected more than 5,000—an impressive feat for a city of 20,000. At the same time, the threat of litigation by oil companies was lessened when Becerra’s office sent a letter in support of the ordinance, stating that it didn’t conflict with state law.

“For the oil companies, the only solution was to keep it as it was,” Escoto said. She pointed to the oil-pump jack that was located on the lot next door to CBA’s office. It was near a large apartment complex, and within sight of a playground. “We don’t think they should put any rigs in the city,” she told me. “Some people say, ‘Well, if it’s so polluted, why don’t you just leave?’ But for me that’s not the solution. We’re going to fight, and we’re staying.”

The fight to curb fossil fuel extraction in California will not be easy. The state is known for being a leader in tackling climate change, but Big Oil still holds big power. According to an analysis by Maplight, an organization that studies the influence of money in politics, the oil and gas industry has spent $170 million since 2001 on political campaigns in the state. It also has the state’s highest spending lobbyists: The American Lung Association reported that during the 2017–18 legislative session, the industry spent almost $26.2 million—or $72,000 per day—through individual companies like Chevron and trade groups like the Western States Petroleum Association. While the recently departed governor, Jerry Brown, did much to promote renewable energies, in the eyes of some environmentalists, he failed to take the next critical step: push to keep California’s fossil fuels in the ground.

In the San Joaquin Valley, many elected officials do what the oil industry wants. The best example of their influence is the ordinance passed unanimously by the Kern County Board of Supervisors in 2015. The industry requested the ordinance, which they spent $13 million to develop. The result was a single Environmental Impact Report that allowed more than 70,000 new oil and gas wells to be drilled over the next 25 years without being subject to individual, site-specific environmental study. The county estimates that these wells could emit up to 39,000 tons of air pollution per year. According to a lawsuit filed by various environmental organizations, including Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, the county also failed to translate notices and documents into Spanish or provide interpretation services at all public hearings—effectively preventing many people from meaningful participation in the process.

Seen against the backdrop of the Kern County ordinance, the threat represented by the Arvin model comes into focus. In Arvin, the script was flipped: Spanish-speaking residents were deeply involved from the beginning, and the mayor and city council were determined to maintain some independence from the oil industry. (A representative of the industry, via e-mail, complained that Arvin leaders had drafted the ordinance “without collaborating with the industry.”)

The first opportunity to undermine the ordinance came last November, when three seats on Arvin’s council were up for election. If the industry could install three friendly politicians, they’d form a 3-2 majority. The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), based in Sacramento, took the lead, donating $20,000 to a trio of candidates. Another $2,500 in support of the slate came from Willie Rivera, a Bakersfield council member who is also the director of regulatory affairs for CIPA.

“A well-funded campaign in Arvin is $2,000,” Gurrola told me—enough to buy some fliers and yard signs. The money from CIPA helped blanket the city with advertisements for the three candidates, which included several different mailers sent to eligible Arvin voters. The only counter to the deluge of oil money was a $2,000 donation from Tom Steyer, the environmental activist and recently announced Democratic presidential contender, to 29-year-old incumbent Jazmin Robles, who had voted in favor of the ordinance. What Arvin did have was motivated residents, who knocked on doors for Robles and another pro-ordinance candidate, Olivia Trujillo, a former Arvin planning commissioner member. In the end, it was enough: Robles and Trujillo were among the top three vote-getters. Only one CIPA backed candidate made the cut-off.

Could Arvin inspire other cities in the San Joaquin Valley? That’s the hope of environmental activists—and the fear of the oil industry. “Every notch in [activists’] belt, I think, empowers them to keep biting off more, and that concerns me,” Rivera, the CIPA staffer and Bakersfield council member, told the local paper.

A potential next target is the city of Shafter, about 20 miles northwest of Bakersfield.

Earlier this year, I toured the city with Tom Frantz, a lanky fourth-generation farmer turned clean-air activist. In 2012, Frantz videotaped an oil company illegally dumping fracking fluid in an open pit next to an almond orchard, which led to a $60,000 fine. Since then, he’s become a one-man neighborhood watch, spending his time mapping out drilling operations, videotaping their activities, and occasionally sharing those videos with the press and regulatory agencies.

Frantz told me that he is heartened by what happened in Arvin, though, like some activists I spoke with, he doesn’t think the ordinance went far enough. One 2014 public-health study recommended a 2000-foot buffer between drilling operations and residential areas, and in 2013 the city of Dallas passed rules barring drilling within 1,500 feet of homes. But he’d certainly like Shafter to follow in Arvin’s footsteps. The city has a sister organization to the Arvin group, the Committee for a Better Shafter. And there are signs that Shafter’s political winds are changing. “There’s a potential to make slow change,” says Frantz. “The guys on City Council are not the kind to rock the boat, but they at least represent more of the residents.”

Arvin Mayor Gurrola also told me that he wished the ordinance had created further setbacks, but that he felt this “was what we could get away with for now.” For Gurrola, that idea that more needs to be done is not up for debate, and the city continues to swim upstream in a county where oil reigns supreme. Last November, Arvin won a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority to buy three electric buses, with a goal of all electric fleet within the decade. There are also plans to construct a satellite campus of Bakersfield College in Arvin, where, Gurrola hopes, students could be trained for jobs in the renewable-energy industry.

“We have to have this transition,” Gurrola told me back in his office. Last year, he had signed a petition, along with 250 other elected officials, requesting that then-Governor Brown begin to phase out fossil fuel production, which included a call for investments in communities like Arvin that are shouldering the health burdens caused by the industry. Gurrola was the only signatory from Kern County, which sparked, predictably, another round of criticism from the oil industry.

“If, as the current leaders are doing in Kern County, we stick our heads in the sand and say we’re going to keep drilling until, whether by an act of God or act of government, we can’t drill anymore, Kern County is going to be the next Detroit,” Gurrola said. “If we want to look out for the long-term future of our community, we need to actively participate in this transition, because we are going to the ones most impacted.”

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