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Pumped about drilling

The oil town of Taft is still struggling, but rising prices fuel new hope.

July 01, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

TAFT, CALIF. — This town of 6,700 sits amid the richest oil fields in California, but nobody would mistake it for Dubai.

There are no gleaming towers. Empty storefronts line its downtown streets. One of its two car dealerships recently folded, and a church recently went into foreclosure. To make more money, the city wants to move its eastern border 17 miles and annex an auto raceway under construction beside Interstate 5.

"We have to go out there to collect some revenue," said Bud Rice, a Taft official who works on economic development. "Without that, we're basically stuck."

The decades have not been kind to Taft. Hemmed in by oil fields, the town has little room to grow. Residents shop for deals half an hour away in bustling Bakersfield. Oil workers surge into town from Bakersfield each morning and surge right out again at night.

Thousands of pumps dot the desert around Taft, and many more are coming. With rocketing oil prices, companies have unplugged old wells that were once deemed too costly to operate. Development of new wells has set a pace nearly twice last year's. Chevron alone has tripled its investment in the area since 2004, budgeting more than $900 million this year to find and pump the oil left behind by previous booms.

"Folks are making big money around the oil patch," said Les Clark, a spokesman for the Independent Oil Producers Agency, an association of smaller oil businesses in Kern County. Mom-and-pop companies are reviving wells they had shut down because the electricity to pump out the oil cost more than the oil was worth, he said.

In recent years, the oil business has been very good to people like Bruce Holmes. On a century-old oil field in nearby Maricopa, he is moved to grand oratory when contemplating the bad rap oil gets, particularly in communities along the coast.

"Environmentalists live their lives in helium-filled balloons balanced on the backs of the taxpayers," he says. "The oilman, the bootlegger, the pornographer: People utilize the services we provide, then curse us for providing them."

Standing beside a well he sank on what was once his grandfather's homestead, he said he'd had his share of financial ups and downs. At 67, he's up: He scraped together $250,000 to drill five years ago, when oil went for $25 a barrel or less.

Now it fetches roughly five times that, bringing Holmes $3,000 a day -- enough, he said with an earnest deadpan, "to put beer on the table and keep my Roxy in dog biscuits."

The heritage of oil runs deep in Kern County, especially in the towns that dot the sage-studded desert west of Bakersfield.

The county yields more than 75% of all the oil produced in California. It pours out more oil than all but three states. America's biggest gusher erupted here in 1910, and for a year spewed as much as 100,000 barrels a day into an oozing black lake.

Some people still have pictures of graduating high school seniors posed on the arms of big black oil pumps. The region's twice-a-week newspaper is the Midway Driller (after the vast Midway-Sunset oil field). Taft, the model for New Boston in the epic movie "There Will Be Blood," has a coffee house called Taft Crude. Every five years, Taft hosts the Oildorado, a blowout complete with a pageant for the Oildorado Queen.

Taft's high school has its own oil-technology academy. The city's downtown sidewalks are decorated with sculpture-like pieces of derricks and drills, painted black.

Still, as oil prices hit nosebleed levels, displays of sudden wealth are few.

For some, the memory of harder times is lasting.

"It's a really frustrating thing," said Ron Bracken, a lifelong oilman from Maricopa. "For years we were just making ends meet, producing a lot of oil for six bucks a barrel. Now we're making big money, but it's just payback for producing for near nothing all those years."

Outside Taft, plans have been unveiled for a $2-billion clean-energy plant that would trap greenhouse gases below the oil fields. It could create as many as 1,000 temporary construction jobs, officials say.

But in town, it's business as usual. A Dollar Tree store recently opened, and a Little Caesar's Pizza is coming in.

"I haven't seen a lot of change as far as our town goes," said Mayor Paul Linder. "Folks here are working and doing the things they've been doing for years -- they're pulling oil out of the ground."

Sales taxes have dipped, he said, because high gas prices have dampened the market for cars. A gallon of regular at a Taft gas station cost $4.67 last week -- about the same as in Los Angeles.

And though Kern County receives nearly 30% of its property taxes from the oil industry, Taft gets little of that directly. Some residents say the town is just starting to recover from the oil bust of the mid-1980s, when oil prices plunged by more than two-thirds. In Taft, once-thriving companies disappeared, along with the people who worked for them.

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