Oil, fading hopes, and a town's last grasp at prosperity

Oil inheritance

In the town of Taft, California, the reverberations of the global oil industry's slowdown have been especially painful. Located in the heart of Kern County, a metropolitan area of nearly 1 million people deeply reliant on oil for its tax base and middle class, Taft has suffered from rising unemployment and a diminishing tax base in recent years. The local petroleum-dependent economy has left it especially vulnerable to the declining demand for oil and gas.

The rise and fall

For decades, the town has thrived on the proceeds of oil extraction, with oil companies showering it with millions of dollars in tax revenue and philanthropic donations. This funded institutions such as schools, scholarships, and community events, providing a comparatively affluent life for its 9,000 residents. However, beginning around a decade ago, Taft's prospects began to worsen as global oil prices plummeted in 2014 and environmental lawsuits and drilling permitting pauses instituted by California Governor Gavin Newsom slowed drilling.

The promise of a 'just transition'

The concept of a 'just transition' promises government support for displaced workers and forsaken communities, offering subsidies and direct financial aid to establish new industries and avert economic collapse. However, this has not yet occurred, leaving areas like Taft searching for solutions to remain prosperous.

Kern County's answer

In 2021, the oil company California Resources Corporation unveiled a pioneering plan to capture millions of tons of carbon dioxide and store it in depleted wells near Taft. Officials from the county and the company promised that the project would bring thousands of new manufacturing jobs, benefiting former oil workers and replenishing the local tax base. It would also restore institutions such as the West Side Recreation and Park District, which has scaled back offerings due to diminished funding.

A divisive prospect

This ambitious initiative has generated a passionate response from the town, with many rallying behind the project as an innovative solution to their plight. Critics, however, fear the safety risks of storing large volumes of greenhouse gases underground and question whether the benefits of carbon capture are worth prolonging the oil industry's presence. The plan's success is uncertain, but for now, it represents Taft's best chance at weathering the declining oil economy.

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