RED COUNTY BLUE COUNTY: In the final run-up to the 2020 election, KCRW is taking a look at a pair of neighbors that couldn’t be more different — at least on the surface. Listen to more installments of KCRW’s series exploring life and politics in California’s Central Valley.
California’s Central Valley is often called the “breadbasket” of the nation, but it’s also the country’s engine. Kern County is one of the most oil-rich counties in the U.S. and is the state’s top petroleum producer. For more than a century, its oil fields have turned out thousands of barrels of crude a day.
Los Angeles is no stranger to oil production: at one time oil derricks dotted Venice Beach, and pumps are still tapping the Inglewood oil field near Culver City and Baldwin Hills. But all sorts of lucrative industries have exploded around LA – including green tech. The state of California has set aggressive climate goals, and if it hopes to meet them, big oil producers like Kern will need to be brought along. Although the pumps are still running and oil remains the biggest industrial driver in the county, it’s looking to build a new energy foundation in the years ahead.
At the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley, along State Route 33, which is officially called the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, is the small community of Taft. You might not know the name, but odds are good you’re at least slightly familiar with its history.
The small town on the west side of the county was reimagined as Little Boston in the film “There Will Be Blood.” During the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis as oilman Daniel Plainview visits the rural community in 1911 and proselytizes oil, telling the townsfolk that growth and prosperity will follow if he strikes black gold.
The Elder Statesman of Oil
On a hot September day, Les Clark comes across as the modern-day version. He says that while technology may have changed, some things haven’t.
“Taft is an oil town, period,” Clark says. “That’s our backbone. Bakersfield is a big town with a few oilfield workers. This is an oil town. Most everybody in this town has something to do with the oil industry.”
At 77, Clark is Taft’s elder statesman of oil. His family moved here in the early 1950s, and about a decade later, after graduating from Taft High and completing classes at both Taft College and Fresno State, he started in the industry.
For much of his career, and even in semi-retirement, Clark hasn’t served the big companies like ExxonMobil or Shell but independent producers — the really little guys.
“I represent, I think, 24, 25 properties – mom and pops,” says Clark. “I have a couple larger members. I mean, they produce probably anywhere from five – maybe 20 barrels a day. In comparison, we produce in Kern County around 450,000 barrels a day. So, you see, we’re spit in the ocean.”
Clark represents those small players with his Independent Oil Producers Alliance, a trade group for people with a handful of leases. Meanwhile, Chevron and Aera Energy have large footprints in the oil fields surrounding Taft. As time marches on, Clark says those large companies are getting better at plumbing the depths.
“When we first started in this, in ‘65 we were only able to get about 25% of the oil out of the ground,” Clark remembers as he sits in his office near the entrance to town. “Now, the majors are saying that they can probably get 60 - 65% of the oil out of ground. So that means you’ve still got 35, 40% of your oil down there.”
As long as there’s demand, there’s still plenty of supply to tap in the Midway Sunset oil field. Some 20 miles long and a few miles wide, it surrounds Taft and is California’s biggest oil field. Over more than a century, it has produced billions of barrels of oil.
Like the industry it relies on, Taft is boom or bust. At one point, thousands of workers called the town home and Standard Oil of California had its headquarters here. Those days are long gone, says Clark. Rather than describe its glory days, the oilman says he’ll show me.
“We’re going to go right down the middle of Taft; I’m gonna throw you out there in the middle of the road and see if anybody runs over you,” Clark declares with a wry smile. “I mean, they won’t because we don’t have that much traffic — nothing going on up there. I don’t know about you reporters, Jiminy Christmas.”
We step out of Clark’s office, which is located in an old dental practice, and climb aboard his big pickup truck.
The air conditioner is blasting as we drive through the heart of Taft, population 9,200. After a cruise along the main drag, we turn towards the hills and pause at the Oilworkers Monument. Unveiled in 2010, the large bronze sculpture shows several oilmen at work on a towering derrick from the early 20th century.
While we’re there, talk of “Oildorado” comes up. Every five years the city hosts the multi-day celebration featuring facial hair contests and a beauty pageant showcasing the “Maids of Petroleum.” Like so many events, this year’s “Oildorado” is canceled because of the pandemic.
We head back to the main road and start driving north out of town along Highway 33.
“We’re just going through some of the supply houses for the oil industry,” says Clark as we pass by numerous businesses showing no signs of life. “See this is all vacant. We used to have a lot of equipment in there, but it’s vacant. Some of those were in hurt because of the regs that the oil industry faced. Very restrictive on our ability to stay in business.”
Eventually, we leave the highway and pull onto what looks like a service road. As we go along, it becomes clear we’re in the thick of the Midway Sunset oil field. The ground is essentially naked, and oil pumps extend as far as the eye can see. We pull over, and I get out of the truck. Instead of some loud or shrill industrial sound coming from the thousands of oil pumps in every direction, there’s a stillness — a droning background noise that lightly clanks as the pumps rhythmically cycle up and down.
When I get back in the truck, I tell Clark he’s probably going to laugh at what I’m about to say. As we sit in the middle of California’s biggest oil field, surrounded by pumps, I tell him with genuine surprise that it even smells like oil. He says it does, and then without missing a beat: “Smells like money to me!”
The Tide of Black Gold
In Kern County, the scent of crude is what $15 billion smells like. A county report found the assessed value of everything tied to fossil fuels – land, mineral assets, all of it – to be more than $15.6 billion. After all, 80% of the oil produced in California is extracted from Kern.
“Right now, oil stands at about 11-12% of our total economic activity and property tax base,” says Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner.
He says oil is integral to keeping Kern operating smoothly. More than $100 million of oil tax revenue goes to Kern schools, and over $80 million goes to funding the county itself.
Scrivner says the sector is one of the few remaining where someone with only a high school diploma can climb the ladder and earn six-figures.
“The upward social mobility of our county, when you compare it to other parts of the country, we’re always number one or number two or number three on that list,” Scrivener says with pride. “And it’s just because that a person who comes out of either true or relative poverty, with very few opportunities, can get a job in this industry and can make very good money, and they can live the American Dream by buying a home and having a family.”
The tide of black gold may lift all boats in Kern County, but the state of California is trying to move away from fossil fuels, as the effects of climate change bear down. In 2018, then Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill setting 2045 as the target for all of the state’s electricity being generated by renewable sources. For his part, current Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019-2020 budget included $1.5 million for a study looking at “environmental and economic programs and policies to dramatically reduce fossil fuel demand by 2050, in line with the state’s overall climate goals.”
In early September, while addressing climate change and the wildfires burning throughout the state, Newsom reaffirmed his energy plans.
“California leads in low-carbon green growth,” Newsom said. “We will accelerate those efforts, but we will be mindful in that transition of making sure we do it effectively and reliably and safely.”
That doesn’t sit well with Scrivner.
“The governor has made it clear that he wants no petroleum production in the state of California by the year 2050,” the county supervisor says vehemently. “How do you, as an industry, operate in an environment, where the governor has stated he wants you out of business? How do you, as a county like Kern County, that depends so much on oil, try to plan for the future when such a major part of your economy is under attack by the governor and radical liberals in Sacramento?”
Talk of Newsom gets a lot of people like Scrivner hot under the collar here. That’s not a surprise; many see LA and the Bay Area setting the state’s agenda on things like energy without input from regions directly affected – and while still depending on dirty energy to run their economies.
But then Scrivner pivots with something unexpected.
“Renewable energy is actually the second biggest economic driver in the county,” Scrivener says. “It surpassed ag about five years ago, I’d say. So, oil number one, renewable number two, ag number three.”
Agriculture and renewables trade second place back and forth, but a region that’s been known for gushers for more than a century is increasingly on the map for its wind and solar farms. Kern’s planning and natural resources director, Lorelei Oviatt, says customers from near and far are lining up – and spending big.
“If you live in Santa Monica, your green electrons come from Kern County,” says Oviatt. “If you live in the city of Los Angeles, your green electrons come from us. The city of Los Angeles’ largest renewable energy projects are in Kern. You know, San Diego, Northern California, Amazon – they come to Kern. That is $56 billion of private investment money from around the world. EDF from France, EDP from Portugal, Abengoa from Spain.”
Gordon Nipp, the vice-chair of the Kern-Kaweah chapter of the Sierra Club, says that while the county’s efforts with renewables are a good thing, he knows Kern’s move away from petroleum is going to be a blow to the region.
“It’s clear that losing the oil industry is going to cause a financial strain, and that’s where the state has to come in,” says Nipp.
According to Nipp, Kern is still doing business the way it’s been done for a century – full steam ahead with oil. When talking about the region’s future, he believes it’ll likely fall to the state to find a way to wind down the oil drilling – what he calls a “just transition,” including a path forward for oil workers.
“We ought to be planning for a just transition – a transition which comes up with means to address the loss of those thousands of oilfield jobs,” says Nipp. “In Kern County, we ought to be finding places for those folks who are working in the oilfields now to work elsewhere.”
And along with the jobs, oil brings in nearly $200 million in property tax revenue annually. How do you replace that? Actually, Lorelei Oviatt, Kern’s planning director, has an answer.
“I calculated on the back of an envelope that I would have to build 66 Amazon fulfillment centers every year to replace that,” Oviatt says.
While her department courts and approves renewable projects, Oviatt is also eager to welcome the logistics sector to Kern. With plenty of land, I-5 and Highway 99, and established environmental mitigation policies in place, she says bring on the warehouses.
“If there’s too many in Ontario, come to Kern,” Oviatt exclaims. “Those are good jobs. People just with a high school diploma can go to work in a logistics center; they can get paid education. They can learn how to repair the robots, not just wait for the robots to show up.”
For now, oil is still king in Kern, but the twilight of its reign might be here. With renewables on the upswing, county supervisor Zack Scrivner is appealing to the state to let this historically oil-rich place tap the resource it has.
“As we are transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, my plea is ‘Don’t shut us down here in Kern,’” says Scrivner. “‘Let us pump every last drop of oil. Let us collect the tax revenue. Let us provide the jobs. Let us provide the supply that the state of California needs.’”
But a reckoning for energy production in Kern County is looming. And environmentalists like Gordon Nipp say the time is now. So while towns like Taft continue to celebrate their heritage by way of “Oildorado,” California’s ambitious climate goals could prevent them from scraping the bottom of the proverbial oil barrel.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.