In Kern County, an oil town grapples with a green future
The rural city of Taft is perched directly on top of the state’s most productive oilfield.
This story was featured in the Taft episode of the KVPR podcast The Other California, as well as Climate Costs: A public radio special exploring the high price of climate change for California communities produced by the California Newsroom.
It’s a Friday night in Taft, a small Kern County city perched in the dusty hills southwest of Bakersfield, and there’s a standoff in front of the old Fox Theater: Think cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats, a sheriff’s posse wearing gold stars, and bandits clad in black. “Let's make sure those guys ain't sneaking in on us anywhere around here,” the sheriff says slyly. Within seconds, however, gunfire rains out from all sides. “Let’s get ‘em, boys!” someone shouts.
But the bullets are blank, and the whole shootout is a game. It’s a preview, in fact, of an Old-West-themed festival that happens here every five years in October.
It’s called Oildorado.
“It's just a really good time for everybody to get together and promote the town's history and the oil industry,” said Bryan Sellman, who’s playing the sheriff.
A little over a century ago, this city was built directly on top of Midway-Sunset, the state’s most productive oilfield, after an exploratory well released 9 million barrels of oil into the sky and surrounding hills. The so-called Lakeview Gusher still remains one of the largest oil spills in the country’s history, but at the time, it revealed a vast untapped resource lying under the middle of the state. It also reportedly inspired the Hollywood movie There Will Be Blood.
Today, the city’s economy is still built on oil. Walk down the street from Black Gold Brewing Company and you’ll pass monuments of drilling equipment on every corner. There’s even a replica pumpjack just outside the Best Western. Taft is ground zero for California’s oil industry, the seventh largest in the country, which pumps more than $100 billion into the state economy and provides more than 300,000 jobs.
Locals who’ve come out to watch the Oildorado preview feel everything in this town owes its existence to the stuff. “It made me who I am. I grew up here, oil raised my family, gave me an education,” said public relations expert Chris Lowe. “It's in your toothbrush, in your floss...in your basketballs and soccer balls,” said dental hygienist Julie Ortlieb. “Oil means everything,” said city councilmember and school district executive Josh Bryant. “Oil is a way of life.”
But that way of life is in question. In an effort to reduce climate-forcing emissions, Governor Gavin Newsom has committed to halting all in-state petroleum production by 2045, and has already promised to ban new hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) permits by 2024.
For so long, Taft has embraced its history as an oil town. Now, locals worry about what a green future could mean. “Taft is very upset by what's going on in Sacramento,” said Renee Hill. A former city councilmember, she now sells antiques and flowers on the city’s main drag, and on big nights like these she rolls a fire pit out front. She loves this town of 9,000. “I'm a Taft girl,” she said. “My dad was a doctor here, I grew up here.”
But a future without oil? That might be progress for the climate, but it’s hard for Hill to imagine. “Taft'll shrivel,” she said. “I can't fathom what we'll do for ourselves.”
California’s relationship with oil is complicated. Because of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by the combustion of fossil fuels, Newsom and other state leaders have made the petroleum industry a major target for climate change-related reductions. “Consider this,” Newsom said in his March 2022 State of the State address. “Our nation-leading climate investments…will ensure that other innovations will surely follow not by re-creating the 20th century, by extracting more oil, but by extracting new ideas, drilling for new talent by running our economy on a carbon-free engine.”
Public health, too, is a concern. Tailpipe emissions from gasoline-fueled vehicles consistently prevent many of the state’s air basins from meeting federal air quality standards, and a series of oil seeps in 2019, not far from Taft, fueled concerns about water and air contamination near the state’s oilfields.
But the industry’s economic benefits are also very real. It’s not just the billions of dollars in county tax revenue, the tens of thousands of well-paying jobs, or even the millions in oil property taxes that fund Taft’s schools.
“The producers and the companies that are a part of it are much more than employers, they're community partners,” said Mayor Dave Noerr, standing downtown at a massive bronze statue of an oil derrick and roustabouts carrying wrenches and ropes. A slender man in jeans and a paisley button-down, Noerr points out that oil companies support community events and workers mentor high school students in a local college prep program. “They have their fingerprints on every beneficial program that takes place in this valley as well as in this community,” he said.
In Taft and beyond, residents know it. In early 2020, a record number of people crowded county offices in Bakersfield for a chance to speak at a board of supervisors meeting in which higher-ups from the Newsom administration had come to discuss the petroleum industry. The Bakersfield Californian estimated more than 1,000 residents showed up, many wearing hats and signs reading “Make Oil Great Again.” A meeting that would have normally lasted two hours dragged on for more than six.
One speaker was Les Clark, who refers to Newsom as “Governor Nuisance.” He’s a long-time oilman in Taft who now leads the Independent Oil Producers’ Alliance. “I don't like it…I think it's foolishness for people to think that they're going to do away with fossil fuel,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
Foolish is a theme. Some of the $65 million the state proposes to support the industry in transition would train displaced workers to abandon wells. Mayor Noerr calls that an absolute insult, because the industry’s already been doing that for years.
Similarly, Fred Holmes, the owner of a small Taft oil producer, argues that planning to ditch California’s petroleum is just an example of not-in-my-backyard-ism (NIMBYism). Without significantly curtailing demand for fossil fuels, he says, we’ll be exporting the industry, and likely to countries with fewer environmental protections and civil rights. “Us citizens, including yourself, we're not going to give up our energy,” he said. “Are you going to give up your energy? No, you're going to support Saudi Arabia.”
Kern County may produce 70 percent of the state’s oil, but did you know it’s also the state’s largest producer of renewable electricity? It’s home to a quarter of our solar and more than half of our wind power, according to data provided by the California Energy Commission. “We power the rest of this state,” Mayor Noerr proudly proclaimed at last November’s Kern County Energy Summit in Bakersfield.
But as Noerr told me later from his office, those solar and wind farms just don’t create as many jobs as oil and gas. “That lip service about replacing the jobs that are being lost is just that, it’s lip service,” he said. “Those jobs, and the economic impact to local communities, are just as intermittent as the energy they produce.”
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit calhum.org.