Russian ban fuels hope, frustration in California oil field

Here, amid the dusty hills and deserted highways of California’s oil country, the past three years have delivered “one kick in the gut after another,” some say.

The coronavirus, wildly volatile crude oil prices, ongoing surface pollution, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to move to a “carbon neutral” economy and the recent closure of two local prisons have left many wondering what the future holds for this country barren corner of western Kern County.

In recent days, however, that bleak prospect has given way to a strong mix of hope, anger and despair following President Biden’s ban on Russian oil imports.

The executive order designed to undermine President Vladimir Putin’s ability to wage war in Ukraine has contributed to soaring gas prices. It’s also given oil industry advocates a new mace to use against California’s pumping restrictions.

“We stand ready to capitalize on this God-given opportunity with expertise and a critical natural resource of which we have plenty,” said Dave Noerr, Mayor of Taft and a veteran oilman. “But we must not do what we do best for what California needs most – local oil.”

A man on barren land with oil equipment in the background

“We must not do what we do best for what California needs most — local oil,” says Taft Mayor Dave Noerr, who is standing in an oil field in the city.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

In the fields surrounding historic oil centers like Taft and McKittrick, a maze of steam pipes, fuel lines, diesel generators, and dirt roads weave between myriad pump jacks. The air here smells of crankcase oil—as it has for decades—but activity is far less now than it was three years ago, and local communities are feeling the need.

State oil and gas regulators have banned most new permits for the use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracturing, since 2019, when Newsom began calling for plans to phase out oil production in California, citing the increasingly damaging effects of global warming and similar extraction technologies.

His actions angered oil company boardrooms, enraged Kern County officials, and left small-town officials at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley struggling with shrinking tax roles.

Newsom has since been named as a defendant in lawsuits filed by Kern County and Western States Petroleum Assn. were filed accusing him of causing “irreparable harm” to around 23,900 people who earn directly or indirectly from Kern County’s 76 active oil fields a life. The lawsuits want a judge to declare that his actions are “null and void and exceed the bounds of the law.”

A bronze statue of an oil worker

Dedicated in 2010, the Taft Oilworker Monument pays homage to oil workers – a powerful reminder of the region’s economic roots.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

But now some see Russia’s oil ban as their last best hope of forcing the state to expand production.

State and federal lawmakers, backed by the oil industry, spent the last week smashing Newsom’s anti-oil stance.

In a letter sent to Newsom a week ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said “it is critical that we actively work to replace Russian oil imports” with “cleaner American energy that… can be produced in California by Californians. ”

“Actions to increase home energy production,” he said, “would also increase domestic energy supplies – potentially helping to mitigate the rise in already skyrocketing gas prices in our state.”

Locals ask how a country that still imports millions of barrels a day of oil — from sometimes hostile suppliers — can ignore a place like this.

For them, a small surge in production at existing oilfield operations last week, prompted by the rising value of oil and gas commodities, has brought a measure of relief and hope.

But up close, the robustness of what Noerr called “a production increase of about 5% to 10%” looks like a fragile boomlet.

For example, this meant a larger crowd of hungry oilfield workers at Mike & Annie’s McKittrick Hotel, Penny Bar & Cafe, a dive bar in a town of about 145 people about 15 miles northwest of Taft.

A woman stands in the doorway of a cafe

Annie Moore is co-owner of Mike & Annie’s McKittrick Hotel, Penny Bar & Cafe in McKittrick, Kern County. In good times, the business attracts crowds of hungry oil field workers.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“Things have improved a bit,” said Annie Moore, co-owner of the store on scenic Highway 33, which has more than a million cents taped to the bar, floors, walls, TV and entryway. “We really needed that.”

The big question now is whether it will grow into something enduring and useful on streets that embody many of small-town Americana’s most attractive attributes, along with bronze oil platforms and other pieces of machinery erected as a reminder of its commercial roots.

Oil drilling in Kern County dates back to the 19th century with the first field being developed in 1898.

Just three years ago, Kern County ranked first among California’s oil-producing counties, producing 119 million barrels of oil, about 71% of the state’s production. In the last available year, 2020, production had fallen to 103 million barrels, according to data service DrillingEdge.

In 2020, for the first time in California history, Newsom issued an executive order directing the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Natural Resources Administration to “accelerate the closure and clean-up of past oil production sites” as the state transitions to a carbon-neutral economy .”

A man walks three dogs

Business owner Michael Long walks his three border collies along Center Street in downtown Taft. The city is at a crossroads, he says.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A year later, he directed the California Air Resources Board to evaluate plans to “reduce or eliminate demand for fossil fuels in California and end oil production in our state.”

Even with a ban on imported oil, the quest to phase out fossil fuel emissions remains an urgent priority for many.

Last month, a United Nations climate report said human life and the planet’s ecosystems are at increasing risk of catastrophe if nations fail to quickly reduce emissions of gases that are heating the planet.

As global warming continues to intensify deadly heat waves, intense droughts, floods and devastating wildfires, researchers from 67 countries have called for urgent action to deal with the crisis. They said many of the dangerous and accelerating effects could still be reduced depending on how quickly fossil fuel burning and greenhouse gas emissions are curbed.

Western Kern County’s oil industry has seen declines before. However, the current decline is different as it coincides with shifting political winds, the rush to develop alternative energy sources, the COVID-19 pandemic and rising concerns about toxic emissions, leaks and seepage from oil and gas production.

A huge leak at Chevron Corp.’s Cymric oil field, just outside of McKittrick, triggered a spate of troubles in the region in 2019. More than 1 million gallons of oil and brine seeped from a well, filling a dry stream and creating a Black Lagoon hazard.

When Newsom walked to the scene, the sarcastic response heard across town was, “There goes the neighborhood.”

Chevron is still trying to permanently stop the seepage. On Friday, the company described its condition as “stabilizing” with flow rates “95% lower today than in July 2019.”

The leak was just one in a series of recent setbacks, locals say.

In 2021, as Newsom gained support for his anti-oil stance, a state prison and a federal prison in Taft closed, resulting in the sudden loss of more than 400 local jobs.

A man is standing in front of a bar

Michael Long, owner of Black Gold Brewing Co. in downtown Taft, says, “We need more housing and job diversification.”

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“The loss of both prisons in one year – on top of everything else – was devastating to this city,” said Michael Long, 67, owner of Black Gold Brewing Co. in Taft, which serves diners a range of Thai food, craft beers, weapons and ammunition.

“To offset the economic losses,” added Long, a burly man who is also publisher and editor-in-chief of the Taft Independent Newspaper, “Taft residents voted for a 1% sales tax that goes into effect this month.” ”

In addition, since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has been painfully disappointing to see oil industry investment migrating to states with simpler extraction rules and higher profit margins, such as New Mexico and Texas.

Taft is at a crossroads. “We need more housing and job diversification,” Long said as he surveyed Main Street through Taft, a mix of storefronts, many marred by chipped paint and boarded-up windows.

That will not be easy. But Noerr enthusiastically insists that the pressure at the pump as gas prices continue to rise has offered Kern County’s ailing oil industry an opportunity to confront the myriad political, economic and technical challenges on the horizon.

He tells anyone who will listen of ambitious proposals to turn the area into a proving ground for new, less polluting and more efficient refinements in extraction technologies, perhaps even improvements in carbon capture and storage.

On a past weekday, Noerr pulled his black 425 hp pickup truck to a halt on a dual carriageway flanked by oil rigs and steam pipes.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, addressing a reporter. “We don’t have a huge river, a scenic coastline, a busy port, or a major railway line. We are a relatively small area surrounded by 10,000 wells.

“All we want,” he said, “is a chance to keep the door open to new opportunities.” Russian ban fuels hope, frustration in California oil field

Tom Vazquez

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