Russian ban sparks hope and frustration in California oil patch

Here, amid the dusty hills and deserted main streets of California oil country, the past three years have kicked in “one kick after another,” some say.

The coronavirus, wildly fluctuating crude prices, persistent surface spills, Governor Gavin Newsom’s pledge to transition to a “carbon neutral” economy, and the recent closure of two local jails have left many wondering what the future has to offer in this sere corner of west Kern County.

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

The executive order, which aims to undermine President Vladimir Putin’s ability to wage war in Ukraine, has contributed to soaring gasoline prices. It also gave oil industry advocates a new baton with which to fight California’s pumping restrictions.

“We are ready to seize this God-given opportunity with expertise and a critical natural resource that we have in abundance,” said Taft Mayor and veteran oilman Dave Noerr. “But we’re not allowed to do what we do best for what California needs most – local oil.”

“We are not allowed to do what we do best for what California needs most – local oil,” Taft Mayor Dave Noerr says while standing in an oilfield in the city.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

In the fields surrounding historic oil centers such as Taft and McKittrick, a maze of steam lines, fuel lines, diesel generators and dirt roads weaves its way through countless pump jacks. The air here smells of crankcase oil – as it has for decades – but there is far less activity now than just three years ago, and local communities are feeling the effects.

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

His actions have raised anger in oil company boardrooms, enraged Kern County officials and left officials in small towns at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley struggling with tax lists. falling.

Newsom has since been named a defendant in lawsuits filed by Kern County and Western States Petroleum Assn., which accuse him of causing “irreparable harm” to approximately 23,900 people who directly or indirectly depend on the 76 active oilfields in Kern County to earn a source of income. The lawsuits want a judge to declare his actions “null and void and beyond the bounds of the law.”

A bronze statue of an oil worker

The Taft Oilworker Monument, dedicated in 1910, honors workers in the oil industry – a powerful reminder of the region’s economic roots.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

But now some see the ban on Russian oil as their last and best hope to force the state to increase production.

State and federal lawmakers backed by the oil industry have spent the past week hammering Newsom’s anti-oil stance.

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

“Taking steps to increase energy production at home,” he said, “would also increase home energy supply, which could contribute to sharp increases in already rising gas prices seen in our State”.

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

For them, a slight increase in production at existing oilfields over the past week, prompted by the rise in the value of oil and gas products, has brought some relief and hope.

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

For example, it has meant larger crowds of hungry oil workers at Mike & Annie’s McKittrick Hotel, Penny Bar & Cafe, a watering hole 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. During good times, the company draws crowds of starving oilfield workers.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“Things got a little better,” said Annie Moore, co-owner of the business on scenic Route 33, with more than a million pennies stuck to the bar, floors, walls, TV and the entrance. “We really needed it.”

The big question now is whether it will become something lasting and beneficial on the streets that embody many of the most appealing attributes of small town Americana, along with bronze oil rigs and other exhibits. of machinery erected to recall their economic 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 as the top oil-producing county in California, producing 119 million barrels of oil, or about 71% of state production. In 2020, the latest year available, 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 Agency to “accelerate” the “closure and remediating former oil extraction 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 asked the California Air Resources Board to evaluate plans to “reduce or eliminate demand for fossil fuels in California and end oil extraction in our state.”

Even with an oil import ban, the drive to phase out fossil fuel emissions remains an urgent priority for many.

Last month, a United Nations climate report said people’s lives and Earth’s ecosystems were at increasing risk of disaster if nations failed to rapidly reduce emissions of the planet’s warming gases.

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

Western Kern County’s oil industry has seen downturns before. But the current decline differs because it has coincided with shifting political winds, the rush to develop alternative energy sources, the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing concerns about toxic emissions, leaks and seeps from production. of oil and gas.

A huge seep at Chevron Corp.’s Cymric oilfield just outside McKittrick sparked a source of trouble for the region in 2019. More than 1 million gallons of oil and brine seeped from a well , filling a dry creek and creating a dangerous black lagoon.

When Newsom drove to the spill site, the sarcastic response heard across town was, “There’s the neighborhood.”

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

The seep was just one of a string of recent setbacks, locals say.

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

A man stands 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)

“Losing both jails in one year – on top of everything else – has been devastating for this town,” said Michael Long, 67, owner of Black Gold Brewing Co. in Taft, where customers are offered an assortment of Thai dishes, craft beers, weapons and ammunition.

“To offset economic losses,” added Long, a burly man who is also the publisher and editor of the Taft Independent Newspaper, “the people of Taft voted for a 1% sales tax, which comes into effective this month. ”

Beyond all that, it’s been painfully disappointing to see oil industry investment migrate to states with easier extraction rules and higher profit margins, like New Mexico and Texas, since that Russia entered Ukraine.

Taft is at a crossroads. “We need more housing and job diversification,” Long said as he looked down Main Street through Taft, a jumble of storefronts, many stained with peeling paint and shuttered windows.

It won’t be easy. But Noerr enthusiastically insists that the pressure at the pump as gas prices continue to rise has presented Kern County’s struggling oil industry with an opportunity to address the myriad political, economic and technical challenges. on the horizon.

He speaks to anyone who wants to hear ambitious proposals to turn the region into a testing ground for further improvements in less environmentally harmful and more efficient extraction technologies, perhaps even improvements in catchment and carbon storage.

On a recent weekday, Noerr stopped his black 425-hp pickup truck on a two-lane road lined with oil rigs and steam pipes.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, turning to a reporter. “We don’t have a giant river, a picturesque coastline, a bustling 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.”

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