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

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.

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