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History of Fossil Fuels in Humboldt County & Hope for a Clean Energy Future


A metal plaque mounted in stone marking California's First Drilled Oil Wells - Historical Landmark No. 543
California's First Drilled Oil Wells, located in the Mattole Valley, are marked by Historical Landmark No. 543. Photo by Ellin Beltz via Wikipedia (PD).

Humboldt County has a long history with petroleum, hence the name of the town of Petrolia. Petrolia is located in the Mattole Valley and is within the ancestral territory of the Mattole people, who were almost entirely exterminated shortly after western settlers arrived in 1849 and oil and natural gas seeps were discovered. According to the California Office of Historic Preservation, in June 1865 Humboldt County drilled the first oil-producing wells in the State of California that sent crude to be refined and sold in San Francisco.


Although the North Coast has not fully developed these resources, many well heads remain in Humboldt County today. As of November 2022, production data shows that Humboldt County has two producing operators, 25 producing wells on file, 201 total wells on file, and 26.2k thousand cubic feet of gas produced. This methane gas production, centered primarily around Fortuna, has utilized hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) for gas extraction.


Ignore, for the moment, the myriad issues related to fracking—poisoned groundwater, induced earthquakes, and hazardous fracking fluids—and let’s focus on climate pollutants. Gas from local wells joins methane imported via pipeline at the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, Humboldt County’s largest producer of electricity. Emissions from the gas-fired Humboldt Bay Generating Station are the largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions in the county. Methane gas is itself a highly potent greenhouse gas, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Leakage of methane is common, whether it is at the well, the pipeline, or the end appliance, like a water heater or gas stove.

A pastel pink, blue, and orange sunset sky over the ocean behind a silhouetted coastline.
The proposed development of offshore wind would be located 20-25 miles offshore from Humboldt Bay. Photo by Amber Jamieson / EPIC.

Reducing greenhouse gas pollution from fracked gas requires both tackling electricity production and in-home use of gas appliances. EPIC’s new “Decarbonize the North Coast” program is working on both fronts. For electricity, Humboldt County is reliant on the Humboldt Bay Generating Station because transmission lines into and out of the area are too small to meet demand and, thus, we require a substantial amount of power to be generated locally. New renewable sources, whether it is rooftop solar or offshore wind, offer the possibility of directly reducing climate pollution while propagating energy independence.


EPIC is also working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from gas appliances. EPIC and allies are working together to ensure that the North McKay Project, a large proposed housing subdivision, be required to adopt all-electric development to mitigate for greenhouse gas emissions related to the project. If completed, this would set an important precedent for local project development.

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