Last weekend in Taft, California, between the procession of floats, antique cars, and marching bands, grown men in cowboy attire shot at one another with antique revolvers, rifles, and shotguns. The concussions rattled plate glass windows of stores along Center Street, many of which stand vacant. As the men passed by, children rushed to retrieve the spent cartridges, which the faux sheriffs and outlaws tossed into the street along with lollipops and pieces of gum. This is the "Grand Parade," the finale of Taft's Oildorado festival, an unbridled street party held every five years to celebrate the region's patron industry—oil.
As one float passes by, a man dressed as an oil-smeared roughneck yells, "God bless Taft!" and "Made in America," tipping his yellow hardhat toward the waving crowd for effect. Another float ferries the "Maids of Petroleum," young beauty competition participants dressed in fishnet tights and Old West bustle skirts. The competition winner, known as the "Oil Queen," sits smiling in a white wicker throne before a glittery cutout of a derrick gushing a rooster-tail of crude.
"They've been fracking out here for years. It's not this horrible thing that you hear about on the nightly news."
Most associate the Central Valley with agriculture. But here in the southwestern corner of the arid basin, just two hours north of Los Angeles, oil is the undisputed king. The "giant" oil fields that envelop the hardscrabble town of 9,000—the Midway-Sunset, Cymric, and Belridge—are among the largest in the country, each having produced over a billion barrels of oil over the last century. The landscape reflects that reality. Fields of pump jacks extend as far as the eye can see. Between them, oil and water pipes run in wild tangles across the dry slopes of the Temblor Range, which on most days are obscured in a sulfurous haze. The region's future, too, exists in a kind of industrial fog. With oil in decline for the last three decades, one can hardly be faulted for asking: Is Oildorado a party, or a last rite?
If the California oil industry has a point of origin, it can be traced to a single hole punched into the ground in 1909. For 18 months, the Lakeview Gusher spewed oil into the air. Workers toiled for weeks in the black rain ("a shower of hot oil that caused the skin to blister and peel off wherever it stuck," as it was described in one account). Unable to stanch the flow, the workers were forced to build several improvised reservoirs out of sandbags to corral the rushing river of crude. The great hydrocarbon geysers erupting across Southern California attracted the likes of Jean Paul Getty and John D. Rockefeller. For much of the period between 1900 and the early 1930s, California was the leading oil producing state in the country.
It is this romantic, oil-soaked past that Oildorado revels in. In the early morning sun, in a park chock full of amusement park rides and vendor booths peddling paintings, barbeque, quilts, and oil industry wares, I meet Ron Cross, a Taft native and graduate of Taft Union High School, class of 1958. He sits alone at a booth selling commemorative blankets, which he and his wife had made for the 2010 festival and the town's 100-year anniversary. The blankets didn't sell well in 2010, he tells me, so he hoped to offload a few on visitors to this year's event. "History doesn't change, you know," he says before launching into his best sales pitch.
He traces his finger over a mosaic of notable locations and events stitched into the weave of the blanket. There is Amelia Earhart's emergency landing at Franklin Field in 1932, and the neon sign of the Oasis bar, which, Cross explains, featured prominently in the 1993 re-make of the 1958 film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. His hand hovers for a moment over the icon representing an event from the 1975 Oildorado celebration, in which Cross and dozens of volunteers constructed the longest sandwich ever made. "It was supposed to be 500 feet long but we lost 36 feet of it," he says wistfully of the massive sub. The loaf was created by placing dough in a long trench in the ground—oil pipeline-style—and then baked with colossal quantities of charcoal. "It turned out to be 464 feet long. That [was] still a world record but we knew we could have done better." Just then, a squadron of World War II bombers and fighters in tight formation roar overhead. And it here occurs to me that the real star of Oildorado is internal combustion, with the engines capable of generating the most horsepower or decibels receiving top billing.
"A lot of people these days think the oil industry is the devil incarnate."
It all seems like great—if eardrum-splitting—fun. But drill down a little deeper, and you'll realize the celebration is taking place during some especially troubled times. Over the last 30 years, the narrative of California oil has been a story of diminishing returns. At its peak in 1985, California oil companies produced more than one million barrels a day; last year, the state's output had fallen to roughly half of that. Recent booms in North Dakota and Texas have drawn the lion's share of industry investment. The dwindling of oil, coupled with falling oil prices, has meant wide-scale job cuts. Today, the unemployment rate in Taft sits at 11.3 percent, roughly double the national average. And shaky economics have been compounded by severe drought. Securing the large volumes of water needed for oil exploration has grown increasingly contentious in the Central Valley, where huge agricultural tracts lay fallow, and water supplies in many small towns across the region have been stretched to the breaking point. In addition to water usage, regulators have begun to look more carefully at the industry's wastewater disposal practices, after inspectors found oil wastes had leached into several groundwater wells in the Central Valley earlier this year.
Amid this new reality, Oildorado has become as much a forum for airing political viewpoints—sometimes outrage—as it is a celebration of local heritage. An op-ed authored by Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy in the Oildorado brochure discusses the need to lift the United States' 40-year crude oil export ban. One of this year's "official" Oildorado T-shirts was emblazoned with the phrase "FRACK OFF!"—a not-so-subtle hint at the local sentiment on environmental regulations. "We've got a huge target on our back," says Scott Cross, Ron's son, who works for Clariant, an oilfield chemical company.
Before agreeing to explain the details of his job to me, Scott asks which way I "lean"—in other words, whether I am pro-industry or pro-environment. Apparently I pass the test, because Scott goes on to explain that Clariant specializes in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial process in which water, sand, and chemicals are blasted at tremendous pressure underground to break up rock formations surrounding oil and gas deposits. Cross seems intent on allaying any fears I may have had about the process. "They've been fracking out here for years," he tells me. "It's not this horrible thing that you hear about on the nightly news."
But oil is just one of a number of causes being advanced at Oildorado, alongside issues that have increasingly come to define the political milieu of rural America. I see passing parade floats covered with political iconography consistent with the region's conservative base. One man on horseback flies a flag that reads "2 AMENDMENT: AMERICA'S ORIGINAL HOMELAND SECURITY." Nearby, I spot two girls no older than eight or nine, walking in lockstep, one waving a Confederate flag, the other hoisting a yellow Gadsden flag, with its trademark "DON'T TREAD ON ME" motto and coiled rattlesnake poised to strike.
To blame tightening environmental regulation and other liberal policies for Taft's woes is to miss the more nuanced story, says Pauline Thornton, a Taft native and docent at the nearby West Kern Oil Museum. She points to the downsizing, automation, and subcontracting that Standard Oil and other oil companies pursued in response to the oil shocks of the 1970s. Standard, she says, sold its offices in town and closed down its large worker camps. "All the high-paying jobs went with them," Thornton says. "That's when many of the stores downtown began to close."
"Oil is the root stock of everything we do."
While shuttered buildings and vacant lots speak to Taft's past, the intensive oil infrastructure around town may be the most poignant indicator of its future. In oil-speak, most of the fields are in "enhanced recovery" phase, meaning that energy-intensive techniques are required to maintain a baseline of production. The bulk of the oil left in the ground here is "heavy," and must first be saturated with large amounts of steam to reduce the viscosity enough so that it can be pumped out of the ground. And because converting water to steam requires large amounts of energy, the upfront production costs are significantly higher than in fields with "lighter," less viscous forms of oil. According to most analysts, the price per barrel needs to be somewhere between $50 to $60 for oil production to be profitable. But with crude down from a peak of $145 in 2008 to about $45 today, optimism is measured. "Personally, I don't think we're ever going to get back to $100 a barrel," says Robert Wayne, an Aera Energy employee clad in sunglasses and a white cowboy hat, flicking cigar ash into the street as he talks. "But if we can get back up to $60 or $70 again, we'll see some of the jobs and prosperity return."
There was a glimmer of hope in 2011, when the Department of Energy released a report stating that more than 15 billion barrels of technically recoverable "tight" oil lay in the Monterey Shale formation underlying the Central Valley (by comparison, that's more than four times the amount of oil estimated for the North Dakota's Bakken formation). In the wake of the announcement, drill rig counts spiked and production briefly surged. But four years later, that bubble's burst. Oil producers have struggled to coax the oil from the complex, earthquake-fractured shale formations, and in 2014 the DOE downgraded its previous 15.4 billion barrel estimate for the Monterey to a mere 600 million barrels—a decrease of 96 percent. The number of drill rigs operating in Kern County today are down by close to 70 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the oilfield services company Baker Hughes. "It's cyclical—it comes and goes," says Wayne, taking another pull on his cigar. "It's always been like that around here."
And perhaps that's the best way to understand Oildorado—a celebration of the boom times, tempered with the growing specter of the bust. But if Taft's end is nigh, its residents will not go down without raising some hell.
"A lot of people these days think the oil industry is the devil incarnate," says Paul Linder, president of the 2015 festival. Linder and I had retreated to a conference room in the festival's headquarters to talk, but there is no escaping the noise. A volley of shotgun blasts rattle the conference room walls, interrupting him mid-thought. Linder clears his throat, and then, without missing a beat, continues: "Oil is the root stock of everything we do. It's our livelihood—and we're not ashamed to celebrate it."