A Oil-Belt Town Bets on Its Fossil-Fuel Industry to Ride Out the Energy Transition

The oil-drilling slowdown that occurred in the United States around 2014 didn't affect everyone in the country. Communities like Taft, California, located in the center of Kern County's oil industry, were hit particularly hard. A decade later, the effects of this slowdown can be felt in Taft's West Side Recreation and Park District, where oil industry donations make up more than half of the budget.

Taft's pain is emblematic of Kern County's trouble as a whole: Though it contains some of the nation's most productive oil fields, the region has struggled to diversify its economy and is now betwixt booms. As drilling has slowed, so has fundraising for the district, leaving it with fewer staff and offerings.

With the region's pain in mind, California Resources Corporation unveiled a groundbreaking plan in 2021 to capture millions of tons of carbon dioxide near Taft and store it in depleted wells. Both the oil company and county officials say the project will bring thousands of new manufacturing jobs and refill local tax coffers and institutions like the rec center.

The promise of a rebirth has given the town hope, but not everyone is on board with the project, and some critics believe a 'just transition' should be focused on communities that have been historically disadvantaged or harmed by industry, not those that have benefited from it. Moreover, projects like this one face growing uncertainty in the face of changing federal policy and a volatile market for carbon storage.

Still, for now, the park district is eager to move ahead, hoping that a carbon storage boom could be a lifesaver for an ailing economy and the middle class it fostered.

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