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The Colonization of Kern County

A story of oil and water

by Jeremy Miller

Published in the January/February 2011 issue of Orion magazine




IN THE CALIFORNIA OIL TOWN OF TAFT, in the stifling hundred-degree heat of July, Agnes Hardt, the eighty-two-year-old curator of the West Kern Oil Museum, tells me to look up Stanley Cooper. I was interested in seeing the natural oil seeps and brea (Spanish for tar) pits strewn across the southwestern corner of the San Joaquin Valley. These are places where molasseslike oil works its way up from deep underground, through fissures and faults and into bubbling craters at the surface.

Cooper is no oilman, it turns out. His family owns and operates the Cooper Pits, diatomaceous earth mines up Reward Road, near where the oil fields fade into the golden, rolling eastern slopes of the Temblor Range. Nonetheless, Hardt insists he’s just the man to show me the way.

“Now, when you call him, speak clearly and loudly,” she says while writing his number onto a small scrap of paper. Hardt says I need to be sure to tell him “Agnes from the museum” told me to call. “He’s shy and hard of hearing. And he might not want to have anything to do with you if he doesn’t have an idea about why you are calling him.”

The following October I drive the steep dirt lane to Cooper’s property. His house perches atop a hill, one ridgeline and less than a quarter mile from one of his family’s open-pit mines. Cooper waits at the front gate behind the wheel of a red Chevy pickup. “We’re going to head just down the road a little,” he says with the heavy Okie inflection endemic to this part of the Valley.

In a span of two miles along Highway 58, the land shifts from grasslands to sage and saltbush, and the eggy smell of hydrogen sulfide gas infuses the air. The area feels tremendously isolated for being a mere two hours north of the Los Angeles sprawl. Three of the U.S.’s ten largest oil fields—Belridge, Midway-Sunset, and Elk Hills—are found in vast anticlines in this parched southwestern corner of California’s agricultural basin, the Great Central Valley. This sprawling complex of oil fields, situated thirty-five miles west of Bakersfield, is arrayed like drying puddles at the foot of the sweeping gold ridgelines of the Temblor Range, which once marked the edge of a shallow sea. During the Eocene, some 56 million years ago, clouds of microorganisms called diatoms rained down over tens of millions of years in successive layers onto the seabed, providing the organic raw material for the oil deposits now trapped in shallow vaults of shale and diatomite under our feet.

At a sweeping right turn, Cooper whips the truck across the yellow line and onto a narrow shoulder. Cooper, who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Jack Lemmon, quickly has one foot out on the hillside, which is covered with sparse vegetation and faint trails leading into a shallow gully below. He walks briskly and I trail behind, noticing as his left hand swings up above his hip that it has been replaced with a prosthesis. Within five minutes we arrive at the end of the small wash. A bare butte drops into a shallow concavity where a square bit of steel grating rests on the ground. A single, rusted oil pipeline runs horizontally across a terrace above us. The air hums with a strange energy. “This is the hand-dug well,” he says, dropping to his knees. I do the same, recoiling at the powerful smell of sulfur. The tremendous brightness of the sky contrasts heavily with the darkness of the pit. Nothing but a few rotting timbers are visible under the covering.

“You’ve got to get down like this,” he says, cupping his eyes with his right hand and steadying himself on the edge of the grating with his hook. Up until a few years ago, he says, there was no cover. “It was dangerous as hell.” In a few seconds my eyes adjust to the darkness. A faint shimmer from the sun reflects off the black surface of the tar, fifty or seventy-five feet below us.

The first oilmen of Kern County were not oil workers in any modern sense. Like Cooper, they were miners. Cooper said this well was probably dug in the 1860s or 1870s. “They’d attach a guy to a rope and go down in shifts. And they’d haul the tar up in buckets. When that guy was overcome with gas, they’d pull him up and send down another.”

Aside from scenes from the movie There Will Be Blood, which is based on the area’s early days, Cooper’s descriptions evoke images I’d encountered earlier in Black Gold in the Joaquin, a book by local oil historian Frank Latta: “The miners would work stark naked, covered with the liquid asphaltum,” Latta wrote. “At the end of tour they were scraped with a case knife, or the wooden scrapers used on race horses, and washed in distillate.” The tar, often filled with sand, rocks, and bones, was loaded into barrels and hauled down the road to the town of McKittrick—then known as Asphalto—where a primitive still was used to separate the gas and oil from the solid material.

I ask Cooper why they went to such lengths. “Because most of our oil is too thick to come up in pipes,” he replies gravely. “It was before they had the steam.”

Water—more specifically, water converted to steam—has proven to be the vital ingredient that has kept Kern County’s oil fields alive for over a century. The crude found in the region is known as “heavy oil” because it does not flow like conventional, “light, sweet” oil but oozes, more like cold mayonnaise. This is a result of the shallow depths at which the oil is found and the tectonic action of the region. The land motion here along the western margin of the San Joaquin Valley is driven by a system of thrust faults derived from the San Andreas, the master fault on the other side of the Temblor Range. This continual motion and deformation has caused the oil-bearing formations in the area to shift and warp, exposing large swaths of the underground petroleum to air, and with it, oxygen-loving, petroleum-consuming bacteria that have slowly rendered the crude to tar.

Oil companies have overcome this resistance to flow by injecting thousands of gallons of superheated steam into each well. This process, known as “steamflooding,” reduces the crude’s viscosity and provides a motive force, pushing the intransigent ooze toward intricate underground meshworks of horizontally drilled well bores where it can then be drawn to the surface by pumping units.

In the time since steamflooding was pioneered here in the fields of Kern County in the 1960s, oil companies statewide have pumped roughly 2.8 trillion gallons of fresh water—or, in the parlance of agriculture, nearly 9 million acre-feet—underground in pursuit of the region’s tarry oil. Essentially, enough water has been injected into the oil fields here over the last forty years to create a lake one foot deep covering more than thirteen thousand square miles—nearly twice the surface area of Lake Ontario.

While oil has been so plentiful in Kern County that it is hard to avoid stepping in it, water has always been a far scarcer commodity. According to historian William Rintoul, in the 1890s water drawn from wells on the west side of the valley tasted like “poison.” Potable supplies were hauled in by rail from Bakersfield and sold in saloons for a nickel a glass. In the turn-of-the-century oil town of Taft—then known as Moron—a drunken man in a Chinese restaurant knocked over an oil lamp, starting a fire that rapidly swept through town. Historian Wallace Morgan noted that residents had roughly ten gallons on hand to battle the conflagration rampaging through the dry wood facades.

Indeed, lack of water is the defining quality of the region and begs a simple question: where are the oil companies getting all of theirs?

IN THE CENTURY AND A HALF SINCE Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil companies have searched the globe for new deposits of light, sweet oil, the kind that a hundred years ago spurted from the ground in Kern County in great roostertails of hydrocarbon. Light, sweet stocks are dwindling rapidly. By some estimates, less than 20 percent of the world’s remaining crude is of this agreeable temperament—willing to move without the addition of water and heat through pipelines, and virtually free of contaminants such as sulfur and heavy metals. “If half the heavy oil and bitumen deposits in the U.S. and Canada are brought to market,” states one report by the Houston-based energy consulting firm Petroleum Equities, Inc., “they would alone satisfy the current demand for crude oil in both countries for more than 150 years.”

“As light oil gets scarce,” wrote energy analyst Byron King in 2009, “a lot of new heavy oil plays are coming out of the industrial shadows.” Kern County’s oil fields offer an early preview of just what lurks in those shadows. The fields remain a key petroleum-producing region in the U.S., accounting for one in every twelve barrels produced domestically. But the land also reveals the Frankensteinian scars and machinery necessary to keep up that level of production. Gas flares glow on hillsides. Nodding donkeys lever over thousands of wells, some of which are spaced fewer than a hundred feet apart. Between the wells and imposing cogeneration power plants—which supply energy and steam to the senescent fields—run wild tangles of pipe. These are the conduits of an elaborate industrial life-support system, breathing in steam and carrying away oil. Without the constant two-way flow—water in, cash out—the monster would die.

Roughly 80 percent of the world’s heavy oil supplies and bitumen are estimated to be found in the Western Hemisphere. The rush is fully on for Canada’s Athabascan tar sands and Venezuela’s Orinoco and Mexico’s Cantarell and Ku-Maloob-Zaap heavy oil deposits, which are being exploited by major oil companies and national outfits such as Pemex and Petróleos de Venezuela. An estimate from the International Energy Agency puts the volume of heavy oil and other unconventional sources worldwide at between 6 and 9 trillion barrels—enough oil to supply the world for over two hundred years at current levels of consumption.

The unconventional is rapidly becoming the conventional. A survey of infrastructure investments by large oil companies shows a mass transition to heavier, dirtier crude. Alberta’s tar sands are now America’s leading source of crude oil, and Canada now accounts for nearly a quarter of the U.S.’s imported crude—over 2 million barrels per day in June 2010, roughly twice the amount of oil imported in the same period from Saudi Arabia. Across the world, hundreds of refineries are being built or undergoing retrofits to process these dirtier petroleum sources. The Keystone Pipeline, currently being constructed between Alberta and the Midwest, is set to fast-track millions of barrels of Athabascan crude to refineries around the country. In 2008, Chevron announced that it would be investing nearly $1 billion to increase production in its Kern County heavy oil fields.

Yet the environmental costs incurred through the production of unconventional fuel sources are rarely examined in any depth. These petroleum sources are often loaded with sulfur and heavy metals such as vanadium, nickel, selenium, and mercury. Compared to conventional light oil production, the extraction and refinement of heavy oil entails significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions and substantial land disturbance.

In Kern County it is water—as it is with nearly every industrial venture in the state of California—that is the linchpin. And I was surprised to learn from local water authorities that a good deal of the water for steamflooding comes from the same source that supplies the region’s farms: the Central Valley and State Water Projects. These are California’s vast and highly engineered systems that pipe fresh water hundreds of miles from reservoirs high in the Sierra and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta east of San Francisco, through the California Aqueduct, a four-hundred-plus-mile conduit that brings water from the Bay Area to the farms of the Central Valley and some 22 million residents of Southern California.

In light of the three-year drought that has crippled the region, the fact that prodigious volumes of clean water are being used to dredge up California tar seems akin to digging ditches with antique silverware. When I visited at the apex of the drought in October of 2009, talk was of a possible “5 percent allocation”—that is, a 95 percent reduction in water deliveries from the California Aqueduct to all users. That news followed a 40 percent allocation the previous year. According to a Kern County Water Agency release, the scenario “is analogous to an employee receiving only 40 percent of his or her wages last year, and hearing that this year’s wages will be down to 5 percent.” (As of June 2010, after heavy snowfall and spring rains, state water regulators increased the allocation to 50 percent.)

Sprawling swaths of farmland lay fallow—topsoil reduced to a dry tuff—and farmers were busy cutting down big trees along their property lines to conserve minute but critical volumes of water. In addition to the parched pastures, hundreds of thousands of people in the region—many living within sight of the aqueduct—have no access to clean drinking water. Unable to secure even a fraction of a fraction of the fully allotted State Water Project water, dozens of small, poor agricultural hamlets such as Alpaugh, East Orosi, Seville, and Kettleman City have been forced to tap groundwater supplies contaminated with arsenic, nitrates, and other agricultural pollutants. The scenes of desiccated hillsides, parched townships, and wind-stripped fields gathered to a grim aesthetic crescendo—every drop of fresh water counts, the landscape declaimed.

And yet oil companies remain deaf to the clatter, insulated by piles of cash and overworked and compliant regulators who—in spite of persistent water shortages—do little to oversee the fate of water once it enters California’s intricate and staggeringly expensive irrigation systems. As the San Joaquin Valley’s soil, people, and economy go dry, Chevron, Aera Energy, Berry Petroleum, Occidental, and dozens of other, smaller petrocompanies continue injecting vast quantities of clean, imported water into the ground for the sole purpose of making lazy oil move.

Oil companies call the fresh water they buy from outside sources “makeup water.” It’s difficult to gauge exactly how much of this makeup water comes from the State Water Project, since oil companies are not required to disclose the sources of their water, and no state agency tracks the fate of State Water Project water after it has been sent down the pipe. “Once we deliver the water through the aqueduct to the local agencies it’s their business what they do with it,” said Don Strickland, a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources. “It’s sort of like buying a car from an auto dealership. The dealer isn’t going to sell you a car and then tell you what you can and can’t use it for.” But a 1983 report by the Department of Energy predicted that Kern County oil producers would require an average 34 million gallons of fresh water per day—or 12 billion gallons over the course of a year—from the state’s already overburdened irrigation systems. A subsequent study published in the journal Environmental Geochemistry and Health by two researchers from the DOE report pushed the figure as high as 85 million gallons per day—or close to 100,000 acre-feet of water annually—enough to supply more than 200,000 households with water for an entire year.

The West Kern Water District, one of thirteen member units under the umbrella of the Kern County Water Agency (itself one of the largest water agencies in the world), delivers roughly twenty-six thousand acre-feet of water to oil companies annually. Much of the fresh water delivered from West Kern ends up at dozens of gas- and coal-burning “cogeneration” power plants that stand amid Kern County’s oil fields. Most of the plants are owned and operated by the oil companies themselves and are key intermediaries in the water-oil exchange being carried out here.

The primary purpose of the water piped to the plants is to generate electricity for oil field operations. Surplus electricity (that which isn’t used to power, say, heavy machinery in oil fields) is sold to local utilities. But the equally vital “secondary” purpose is to generate massive quantities of steam needed to get the heavy oil out of the ground. Thus, every time ratepayers in the region fire up the flat screen television for Sunday morning football, they are subsidizing steamflooding in Kern County.

Moreover, as I learned from J. D. Bramlet, director of operations for the West Kern Water District, oil companies do not seem to be subject to the same vagaries of weather as the region’s farmers. I asked, “If West Kern only gets 5 percent of its allocation from the State Water Project, does that mean that oil companies will only get 5 percent of their allocation from West Kern?”

“No,” Bramlet replied.

“But how can water that does not exist be delivered?”

Bramlet took a deep breath, as if explaining an elementary concept to a particularly dense grade-schooler. He pointed out that the district’s “water banks”—underground reservoirs used to store surplus water—are sometimes sufficient to meet shortfalls. “But it could also mean we’ve got to go out and work a trade or pay someone a higher rate for water,” Bramlet said. “It can be a pretty good deal if they speculated and went out and contracted for water at what the rates were five years ago.”

“Paper water,” as it’s known, is the issuing of speculative contracts for water before that water has actually been deposited by Mother Nature in the state’s reservoirs, lakes, and rivers. Groups pushing for water conservation and greater transparency among local water agencies view this arcane practice as one of the most egregious examples of water mismanagement in the state. Paper water contracts are often cited, for example, as one of the leading causes of mass pumping and ecological decline in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta. But the West Kern Water District’s willingness to honor these speculative water contracts goes a long way to explain the drought-resistant nature of Kern County oil production. Since the mid-1980s, when oil production peaked in California, the curve of decline has been constant. There were no steep drop-offs in production during, say, 1993, one of the driest years on record in California. That year, the Kern Water Agency received only 10 percent of its overall allocation from the State Water Project. Yet oil production dipped by a mere 4 percent, which was in line with the overall trend. This could not have happened without a reliable and continuous source of fresh water.

What’s resoundingly clear, however, is that it takes more water than ever just to sustain Kern County’s ebbing oil production. At the height of California oil production in 1985, oil companies in Kern County pumped 1.1 billion barrels of water underground to extract 256 million barrels of oil—a ratio of roughly four and a half barrels of water for every barrel of oil. In 2008, Kern producers injected nearly 1.3 billion barrels of water to extract 162 million barrels of oil—a ratio of nearly eight barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced.

More than any single factor, cheap oil and its chief derivatives—fertilizer and pesticides—have spurred the hypertrophy of the region’s farms. Yet the San Joaquin Valley’s farmers must now see more than a little irony in the fact that they are in heated competition for water with an industry that has largely underwritten their expansion and present existence.

This irony is substantially deepened by the fact that oil companies are net water producers. It turns out that oil production generates tens of billions of gallons of “produced water” annually. So why, with this virtual Niagara of water rushing up with each plunge of the pump jacks, are oil companies taking huge quantities of water from the aqueduct? Chemistry, oil insiders insist, is the first part of the answer. This fluid is rarely fresh H2O, but a saline brew tinged with other contaminants including salts, residual oil, and heavy metals. Water with high levels of dissolved solids won’t work for steamflooding, said Chevron spokesperson Jim Waldron. Like limescale that forms on the heating elements of a coffee maker, unwanted solids can precipitate out of the steam, eventually obstructing the tips of steam injectors and gumming up the wells.

Produced water is a serious and little-discussed reality of oil production, comprising the oil industry’s largest waste stream by far. In 2009 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, oil companies generated nearly 3 trillion gallons of produced water worldwide. As oil production falls, the ratio becomes more lopsided in favor of water. The senescent oil fields of Kern County now cough up roughly nine barrels of polluted water for every barrel of sludgy oil they produce. In 2007, Kern County oil fields generated 166 million barrels of oil and 1.3 billion barrels of produced water. The following year they spat up 1.45 billion barrels of contaminated water as recompense for 162 million barrels of oil. And so on.

So where is this vast stream of tainted water going? All the major oil companies operating in Kern County claim to be recycling a portion of their produced water for use in steamflooding. For the last fifteen years, Chevron has even sent some of its “purest” produced water generated at its Kern River field to farms in the Cawelo Water District, north of Bakersfield. But none of the companies I contacted would disclose exact proportions or explain the engineering systems involved with treating and reusing the tidal surge of highly contaminated wastewater generated from the west side oil fields. According to Matt Trask, a California energy analyst and former power plant operator, the expense of water treatment can exceed the cost of buying clean water on the open market by as much as ten times. So there is a strong financial incentive for oil companies to merely discard produced water.

For decades, the transaction for heavy oil in Kern County has entailed trading large volumes of scarce fresh water for even larger volumes of polluted water. In 2008, nearly half of the 1.45 billion barrels of polluted water dredged up by oil companies in Kern County were injected into underground disposal wells or left in unlined waste pits, sumps, and evaporation ponds.

TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE CONSEQUENCES of this mass disposal, I traveled thirty minutes northwest of Bakersfield to the interface of the Belridge oil field and the vast farmlands of the Lost Hills District. I met with Fred Starrh, a farmer who has been growing pistachios and almonds along these industrial borderlands since 1973. Starrh is in his late seventies and his soft, slightly doughy features are tucked under a cowboy hat smashed flat along the top and swooping up at the edges. “Hop in,” he exclaims with a wry smile, sweeping a hand toward his mother-of-pearl Lincoln Town Car. He wants to show me the spot where produced water seeped into his groundwater and poisoned his land.

He says some people are surprised that he opts for a low-slung, high-geared highway cruiser over a pickup, especially considering the amount of time he spends rattling down the dirt roads that cut through his orchards. “It gets better mileage,” Starrh says with a laugh. Four bolls of cotton, complete with husk and seeds—a reminder of a crop no longer grown at Starrh Farms—are wedged between the dashboard and the windshield.

His tracts of pistachio and almond trees cover nine square miles. The trees, in some places planted 155 to the acre, recede to a vanishing point. He drives a couple of miles through the middle of his farm until we emerge in a sort of manmade meadow flanked by twenty-foot-high earthen berms. These massive walls are the ramparts of former evaporation ponds belonging to Aera Energy, a joint venture of ExxonMobil and Shell. Inside the walls lies an expansive basin once brimming with produced water. Beyond the lifeless dry ponds, a string of oil-pumping units in the Belridge field extends in a vast robotic procession along the horizon.

Starrh turns right and drives parallel to the walls. Beside the berms is a smaller grove of almonds. Several trees are overturned and the branches of those remaining upright are ashen, bearing no sign of the small buds that stippled trees in other sections of the farm.

Starrh explains that reduced deliveries from the aqueduct in the late ’90s forced him to tap the aquifer underlying his property. “We were desperate for water,” he says. Starrh mixed the groundwater with the little water he had received that year from the aqueduct. He quickly discovered that something was amiss. Tests revealed that boron concentrations had built up in the soil to between fifty and one hundred parts per million—as much as ten times the tolerance level for his almond trees. “Boron is just a tough dude,” said Starrh. “Once it’s in the soil, the only thing you can do to get rid of it is try to flush it out. But you need clean water to do that.”

The boron in his groundwater (along with traces of radiation) originated in Aera’s produced water, which had seeped from the ponds into his aquifer. In January 2009, a Kern County jury determined that 96 million barrels of contaminated water had leached onto Starrh’s property from the Aera ponds and awarded him $8.5 million in damages. The state has since ordered Aera to stop dumping into the ponds, and the company is now in the midst of a comprehensive cleanup of the pond site. But Starrh has appealed the decision, saying that the $8.5 million does not come close to the hundreds of millions of dollars he says he will need to flush the pollutants out of his soil.

According to court records, Aera geologist Ken Knight said the company had considered other disposal sites and methods. Knight said Aera calculated that it would have cost between 35 and 76 cents per barrel to treat the water by way of electrolysis or reverse osmosis—as opposed to 1.5 cents to continue to dump it into the ponds. Knight concluded that to dispose of the water anywhere else but the ponds meant that Aera would have to cease operations in this section of the Belridge.

Starrh says this is nonsense. Even if Aera had paid a dollar per barrel to treat the water, Starrh insists that, with crude oil prices surging over the last decade, the company still would have reaped enormous profits. “If you look at oil production out here, we’re talking about an amount in excess of a billion dollars,” he says with consternation. “They need to be punished, and if they aren’t, it just sets the damn stage for every other company to do the same thing.”

IN THE EARLY MORNING, along a stretch of Highway 33 north of Taft that is enveloped in the scent of hydrogen sulfide gas, steam rises from a set of large, rectangular evaporation ponds on the eastern margin of the Cymric oil field. In addition to posing threats to ground and surface waters—and migratory waterfowl attracted to their shimmering surfaces—the liquid in evaporation pits is often rich in residual hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, and methane, making them not merely toxic but significant contributors of greenhouse gases and catalysts of climate change. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Fresno division, the entity responsible for regulating oil ponds and sumps, does not know exactly how many of these ponds there are but estimates the number in operation in Kern County to be in the hundreds (down from more than a thousand in the 1980s).

A large pond, hundreds of yards long, lies on the other side of a fallen barbed wire fence that was posted with a sign warning of cancerous substances in “detectable amounts.” The site, which is managed by Valley Waste Disposal, an outfit administered by the oil companies themselves, is less than a mile outside of Taft, near the airport. The air there is tinged with the sweet, alcoholic scent of benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals thought by some to contribute to low birth weight and diminished IQ in children exposed in utero. Within minutes, my sinuses begin to burn and my head aches. Although state law decrees that ponds like this are not supposed to be used for petroleum discharge, black, oily pools mixed with jet-black mud lie in the basins.

Merely limiting or ceasing the discharge of water to evaporation ponds is not necessarily enough to remedy decades of contamination—especially in light of the prevailing practices used until recently by the oil industry. “Out by Taft, we’d just run our produced water down unlined ditches,” California State Bakersfield geology professor Jan Gillespie tells me with a clear tinge of embarrassment in her voice, as she explains her work for Tenneco Oil in the late ‘80s.

“That water would go into a big pond. Every so often, a big tar mat would build up on the bottom, and the water wouldn’t seep in anymore. So someone would toss a stick of dynamite and blow up the mat and things would start to percolate again.” (The same practice was mentioned to me by several others who worked in the industry.)

One small pit I encounter, in fact, is right in the city of Taft, behind a church on Main Street, in a lot strewn with heavy equipment. The iridescent surface of the pit, roughly the size of a backyard swimming pool, is ringed with the footprints of a dog. A channel from the small, oily pond has cut its way under the chainlink fence at the property line and flowed down an embankment into the Sandy Creek flood canal, very near where I saw children playing earlier in the day.

SOME RESIDENTS OF KERN COUNTY, like Jan Gillespie, are beginning to connect the ecological plight of the region with its economic straits. “I’ve always kind of thought of Kern County as Kern Colony,” says Gillespie. It’s a little surprising to hear her talk this way, not merely because she once worked in the oil industry, but because roughly half of the students she trains go on to work in the oil industry after graduation. “We’re like many places in the world rich in natural resources. In the Congo it’s precious metals and diamonds. In Kern County it is agriculture and oil.”

“This is the Texas of California,” says Barbara Houghton, supervisor of the Kern County Environmental Health Services Hazardous Waste Division, when I ask about why data and answers from state agencies are so hard to come by. (Houghton’s assessment seemed less figurative each day last fall as millions of dollars poured in from Texas oil companies, including Valero and Tesoro, to revise Assembly Bill 32, California’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions reduction law.) “It is a very different climate here, culturally and politically. Oil is a very big part of that culture.”

According to local historian Pete Gianopulos, Taft’s economy reached its apex around the same time that oil peaked in California: 394 million barrels were pumped in 1985. Today, state production is less than half that total. Coincidentally, perhaps, roughly half the shop fronts along Center Street, Taft’s historic main drag, are abandoned. Many of the stores have been shuttered for the better part of twenty years.

Through the window of Wilson’s Hardware (just across the street from the abandoned Wells Fargo), address numbers in plastic and cardboard packaging hang from a dusty pegboard. A pair of crutches leans against a front desk still furnished with a yellowing cash register and adding machine. Down the street, the plywood has been nailed to the windows of Schmidt’s Fotoshop for so long that it has turned a rich, oily brown reminiscent of dark walnut. “No one shops here anymore,” says Pat Peach, a recent Taft transplant from Deming, New Mexico, and the only other person I encounter on a quarter-mile stretch of Center Street. “They go to K-Mart, or they get in the car and drive out to the Wal-Mart in Bakersfield.”

Packs of stray dogs—most of them, it seems, some variant of stout Chihuahua mutt—wander the side streets of South Taft, the city’s poorest section. Women shepherd small children over empty, sun-baked lots scattered with broken concrete, garbage, and cast-off sections of oil pipe. Small, weathered wood bungalows sidle up to the oil leases of the 25 Hill Section, which is cut through with dirt paths gouged out by four-by-fours and dirt bikes. Resident and former Unocal oil worker Ed Criswell tells me that many of the homes in this neighborhood are unattached to their foundations, making them easier to remove in the event of a new oil find.

At sundown, a few teenagers, students from Taft Union High School, wolf down chili dogs and hamburgers at the Sno-White Drive-in and talk about plans after graduation. “I want to go to San Francisco, probably to study music production,” says Phillip Amaya, a senior at Taft Union with long, kinky hair pulled back in a ponytail. I ask if there’s anything that might keep him in Taft after graduating. He laughs, shakes his head, and takes a pull on the straw of his large cup of soda.

“No. I’m not much into oil,” says Amaya. “Lots of my friends are thinking about going to work for oil companies, though.”

Amaya mentions that the high school has a unique program known as the Oil Academy. According to a school flyer, the program “offers the Petroleum Industry opportunities for possible future employees with a better understanding and appreciation of the Petroleum Industry at an earlier age.”

In spite of the academy’s ponderous mission statement, Taft Union’s principal, Mark Richardson, says the goal is to provide students with a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum through the lens of oil. In addition to class work (the day I visited, it was a debate about Assembly Bill 656, the proposed 12.5 percent severance tax on oil that would be used to fund higher education), students also get to do fieldwork. “They go out to Elk Hills, wear steel-toe boots, and see a working oil rig,” says Richardson. Last year, more than $200,000 in scholarships was awarded to academy students who pursued degrees related to the oil industry. The goal, he says, is to create a homegrown pool of workers for local jobs in the oil industry. “Our hope is that our kids will stay in town and raise families here,” says Richardson.

Yet, even if they do stay, the oil jobs will most likely not be there for them. As oil companies have been consolidated, subcontracted, and become increasingly automated, many of the high-paying administrative and engineering jobs once based in Taft (not to mention hundreds of roughneck and construction jobs) have been lost outright or transplanted to Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Indeed, Taft’s story is defined by subtraction, by the fact that for a century so much has been taken from these lands and that so little of lasting civic value remains. A glimpse of that erasure can be seen where Standard Oil of California’s “11-C” headquarters once stood. Swimming pools, palm trees, large company houses, and shop buildings once filled the vast and empty lot. It was the hub of the city’s economy and local identity. “We’d go to dances and swimming in the summer out at 11-C,” Agnes Hardt, the Kern County Oil Museum curator, told me. “It was really nice.”

The company abandoned most of 11-C in 1968 and removed or razed its buildings in the early 1980s, demolishing structures, uprooting trees, and filling the swimming pool with concrete. Just beyond the front gate (which is tacked with signs warning of SUBSTANCES KNOWN BY THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA TO CAUSE CANCER), a weed-riddled road extends between the desiccated husks of two palm trees into a plot of desert where hundreds once worked, played, and raised families.

“You’d think these places would have a great standard of living,” says Gillespie. “You’d think their roads would be well paved and their children would be well educated. But look around. Ten percent unemployment is the norm in Bakersfield—and Bakersfield is better than many other towns in the Central Valley where 25 percent is typical. The schools can be quite poor. We have a really high teenage pregnancy rate.

“I guess it’s a resource curse. You basically become a colony where your resources flow toward places with more money.”

IN SPITE OF THE DAMAGE exacted in Kern County, oil companies contend that produced water is harmless—and they have the law behind them. In 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency classified crude oil and produced water as “special wastes” and not “hazardous substances” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, known as RCRA.

The trouble with that designation, as has been noted by many critics of the ruling, is that produced water and crude oil—especially the kind of heavy crude extracted in California—are often laden with substances considered “hazardous” under federal law. In fact, the EPA’s 1987 report to Congress that preceded the exemption said as much, clearly stating that water and sludge samples gathered by the agency contained hazardous substances including benzene, penanthrene (a carcinogen), lead, arsenic, and barium in concentrations sometimes exceeding a thousand times the amount deemed by the EPA to be a human health risk.

A consequence of that decision in California—and in oil-producing states across the country—is that the little oversight that does take place falls on cash-strapped and understaffed state agencies. One of those agencies is the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees wastewater production from the oil industry. Clay Rodgers, an officer with the board, told me that there are “three or four” people (including him) responsible for overseeing the vast wastewater stream generated by oil and gas companies in the southern half of the Central Valley. (To put this regulatory task into some kind of perspective, consider that the 60 billion gallons of produced water generated in Kern County in 2008 is a volume more than twice as large as the 29 billion gallons of wastewater generated annually by the City of San Francisco. Of course, San Francisco accomplishes the Herculean task of treating the city’s municipal effluent with three massive wastewater treatment plants. It also employs hundreds—engineers, water quality scientists, computer programmers, and administrators—to carry out this complex and vital civic function.) California’s budget crisis has further reduced oversight.

Because of mandated “furlough Fridays,” state regulators lose more than a full month of work over the course of a year. Rodgers and fellow water officer Shelton Gray told me that they could not allow me to join them on an upcoming site inspection because most of the ponds are located on private property. Much to my dismay, Gray also said he’d prefer that I “not use names”—Chevron and Aera, for example—when talking about specific sites—Lost Hills and Starrh Farms, for example—where enforcement action had taken place.

I asked Rodgers—who coincidentally had gone to college to become an oil geologist before taking a job with the water board after the California oil bust of the ‘80s—if he thought that “three or four” people was adequate manpower to properly regulate the tide of wastewater being generated by the oil industry.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” replied Rodgers. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

IN TAFT AT DUSK, amid the sun-bleached storefronts and abandoned lanes, a sulfurous haze smears the atmosphere, rendering the sun a blood-red disk. The sound of skateboard wheels grinding over asphalt reverberates from the drab defile of Center Street. A dirt bike buzzes somewhere far off. The whole place feels at the brink of something quiet but immense, something utterly final.

As I wander, I think about the water coursing all around in silver tangles of pipe, and the steam nozzles ceaselessly blasting hot vapor into the void. I think of snowfields in the Sierra Nevada and frothing rivulets of water in steep-sided mountain canyons rushing on toward the flat canvas of the valley. I think of the collapsing ecosystems of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta and the poor residents of the Central Valley forced to drink water contaminated with arsenic and nitrates. I think of all the human ingenuity employed in these parched lands to sinking precious water molecules deep into the heavy oil fields, and in hiding the evidence of the practice in noxious, reeking pits on the edge of town. “How dare we imagine,” wrote former oil geologist Rick Bass, “at this late stage of consumption, that some force, some tide of change, might miraculously choose to reach down through our overburden . . . and then ignite that secret buried remnant spark, the tiny flame of who, on our best days—in days gone by—we once were, a culture of givers rather than takers?” 

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Jeremy Miller writes from his home in Tarrytown, New York. His work has appeared in Harper's, High Country News, and 5280.

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