1.01 OIL: A brief history of extraction
Oil powered us through the 20th century and into the clutches of environmental catastrophe. It has controlled the market and fuelled Capitalocene enterprises while enslaving the developing world in debt and putting micro plastics into our bodies. Can the end of oil come soon enough?
Chevron pumpjack in the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, 25 Hill Road, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Although oil has been extracted since at least 400 BCE, when it was exploited as a fuel by the Chinese who transported through pipelines made from bamboo, The Drake Well in Titusville Pennsylvania was the world’s first commercial well drilled for the purpose of finding oil and is often credited with launching the modern oil industry in 1859.
With oil prospectors striking significant deposits in Oklahoma and Texas soon after, it wasn't long before California was discovered to be one of the oil richest regions of America, with the largest oil fields being found in Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley.
The South Belridge oil field, Delfern road, McKittrick, Kern County, California, USA,(2019)
Long before there was oil in the San Joaquin Valley there was an ocean, within which marine plankton floated on or near the surface. As the organisms died, mostly in the Middle Miocene, they sank and accumulated in an oxygen-deficient environment on the seafloor where they were then deeply buried by sediment due to the uplift of coastal ranges to the West, now the Sierra Madre Mountains, and slowly converted by temperature and pressure into liquid oil and gas.
Heavy crude from the Jameson # 17 well in the grounds of the West Kern Oil Museam, Taft, Kern County, California, USA,(2019)
The first significant oil discovery in Kern County was made in 1889, close to what is now Maricopa, when the Sunset Oil Field was discovered. Seven years later in 1896, the Shamrock Gusher blew out in what was then known as Asphalto, now McKittrick, and the Midway Oil Field was discovered. Later both fields were found to be part of the same trend and were given the combined name of the Midway-Sunset Oil Field.
Holms Western Oil Corporation, Pump Jack Number 13, Pentland Road, Maricopa, Kern County, California,USA, (2019)
However, long before California’s Oil Rush and the presence of European settlers, the valleys oil was known to the Yokut people who inhabited the region. The sticky black tar which could be found in a series of naturally occurring asphalt lakes and seeping from the ground close to what is now known as McKittrick and at La Brea in what is now Los Angeles, was used by the Yokut to waterproof canoes, secure arrowheads, stiffen clothes, make decorative wear, and for trade with other tribes.
McKittrick Oil Seeps, Blue Star Memorial Highway, Mckittrick, California, USA, (2019)
Later, the sticky bitumen was used by Spanish Conquistadors to seal the hulls of ships and by European pioneers to lubricate the axels of wagons. Then in the 1860’s, the San Joaquin Valley’s European settlers mined the bitumen from open pits and shafts, leading to the regions first commercial oil exploitation, the moderate success of which led to the first drilled wells in Kern County being sunk by the Buena Vista Petroleum Company in Asphaulto.
McKittrick Oil Seeps, Blue Star Memorial Highway, McKittrick, California, USA, (2019)
When digging, miners often discovered the fossils of trapped and preserved Pleistocene Age animals, hundreds of which were excavated in an around McKittrick by paleontologists between the 1920s and 1940s, including this sabre-tooth cat at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft.
Saber-toothed Cat, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
The discovery of “black gold” in Kern County kick-started California’s oil boom, causing a forest of wooden derricks to spring up overnight on the flood plain just north of Bakersfield and throughout the rolling grasslands surrounding what is now Taft.
Bull Wheels from a wooden Derrick, Blue Star Memorial Highway, McKitrrick, California, USA, (2019)
Found in the foothills that make up the fringes of the South Western corner of the San Joaquin Valley, the small town of Taft exists purely because of oil. A city of 9,000, Taft first emerged as a town from a rail station called Siding Number Two on the Sunset Railroad in order to serve workers living in Standard Oil’s working camps. John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, now Chevron, later went on to make Taft its corporate operational headquarters, and at one point employed as many as 6,000 of Taft’s inhabitants.
Taft, Kern County, California, USA, © 2020 Google, Google Maps, (2020)
Other major oil companies also undertook operations in the area including Shell, Texaco, Exxon, Mobil, Gulf, ARCO, and Berry Petroleum. In its heyday, Taft was a boomtown with bunkhouses for workers and company homes for employees, a playground, baseball field, tennis courts, swimming pool, landscaped grounds, a club house with a television, pool and card tables, several brothels, a main street full of stores and a theatre called Fox Theatre at its heart.
The city of Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (1912)
Petroleum club road, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
By 1903, the California oil boom had led the state to become the leading oil-producing region in the U.S., and by the mid 1920s over 7,000 wooden derricks covered the landscape surrounding Taft. As far as the eye could see derricks dotted the landscape, from the Sunset Field east of Maricopa through the Midway Field, up to the Elk Hills field and down to McKittrick.
The wooden derrick of the Jameson #17 well, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
But by the 1960s, only two wooden derricks remained as re-usable metal ones took their place. The Jameson #17 well in Taft was saved from demolition in 1974 when the 3 acres of land surrounding it were donated to establish the West Kern Oil Museum. Standing at the heart of the museums grounds for 31 years, the wooden derrick was faithfully rebuilt in 2005 when the original was damaged by a storm and had to be demolished.
Postcard sent November 10th, 1962, from Bakersfield California to Bainbridge Maryland reporting on the progress of drilling a new well USA, (2019)
Late 19th and early 20th-century oil production entailed a 12 hour, seven day a week, day or night shift pattern with a wage that fluctuated according to the day's oil price. The work was dangerous, with many fatalities and injuries resulting from being crushed by drilling gear, falling into wells and when explosive blowouts, know as oil gushers, occurred. Many of the oil field workers that flocked to California during the boom were migrant workers with mining or previous oil experience that came to Kern County from the California gold rush or other oil-producing states such as Oklahoma or Texas.
Rotary drilling tools, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Later, as oil workers across the country unionised and went on strike to demand an 8-hour workday and better pay, heavy-handed approaches were taken by the likes of Standard Oil’s J. D. Rockefeller Jr, who employed gunmen and strike breakers to violently suppress pickets, tactics that often lead to the death and injury of striking oilmen.
Chevron belt buckle, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Although oil gushers could be deadly as they erupted from boreholes, they were regarded as a sign of success and pay off to oil well financiers that had risked large amounts of money to drill for black gold. Often visible from miles around, the spectacle would draw in crowds, who were held back at a distance and asked to refrain from smoking, for fear that it could ignite the jet of oil and gas or cause an explosion that could block the well and kill oil workers and onlookers.
A photo of the K.T.O gusher, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
When the Lake View Gusher #1 erupted from the Midway-Sunset Oil Field near Maricopa on March 14th 1910 as the Union Oil Company drilled to a depth of 2,225 feet, it unleashed the longest lasting and most productive oil gusher in U.S. history. Lasting 18 months and releasing 9 million barrels of crude oil, the Lake View Gusher #1 created the largest oil spill in history. The gushers initial daily flow of 18,800 barrels a day was so intense that it created a river of oil which had to be contained by dykes to prevent it from contaminating a nearby lake that was the source of drinking water for the town.
Site of the Lake view gusher #1, Petroleum Club Road, Maricopa, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
With peak flow reaching 90,000 barrels a day, the gusher’s oil was diverted via pipeline to storage tanks 2.5 miles away from which an 8-inch pipe transported it to Port Avila on the coast. By the time the Lake View Gusher #1 was finally brought under control in September 1911, more than half of the 9.4million barrels released during the gushers 544 days of uncontrolled flow had been lost as the oil sunk into the ground, congealed on the surface or evaporated. With the ground still contaminated today, little grows in the area of the spill.
Congealed oil, site of the Lake view gusher #1, Petroleum Club Road, Maricopa, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
The Elk Hills Oil Field which is located 7 miles to the north of Taft was discovered in 1911 by the Associated Oil Company, with the official discovery well being drilled by the Standard Oil company. In 1912 the field was designated as the nation’s first Naval Petroleum Reserve by President William Howard Taft, after whom Taft is named, who was concerned about the long-term availability of petroleum for the U.S. Navy at the outbreak of the First World War.
Oil barrel commemorating the billion barrel of oil extracted from the Elk Hills Oil Field, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, California, USA,(2019)
The oil field later played a prominent role in U.S. political history when the land was inappropriately leased in 1922 by the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, to Pan American Petroleum in return for interest-free personal loans. The elicit deal brought-about the Teapot Dome scandal which subsequently exposed the true nature of the Warren G. Harding administration, now commonly considered to be one of the most corrupt presidencies in U.S. history.
Model wooden derrick, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
As the scandal played out, the events were parodied by novelist Upton Sinclair in his 1926-7 book Oil!, a fictional expose written in the reform-minded muck raking tradition. Then in 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the lease and returned the Elk Hills to the U.S. government.
Oil!, Upton Sinclair, First Edition, Albert & Charles Boni, New York, USA, (1927)
“Their frail human nature was subjected to a strain greater than it was made for; the fires of greed had been lighted in their hearts, and fanned to a white heat that melted every principle and every law.”
Oil!, Upton Sinclair, (1926)
Although the primary extraction of oil from the underground reserves surrounding Taft took place under its own pressure, the same pressure that causes gushers to erupt from boreholes, the secondary and enhanced tertiary stages of extraction require large amounts of energy to raise oil from the fields. At first, pump jacks, once petrol-powered and now electric, are used to draw oil out of the ground.

Wooden pumpjack, West Kern Oil Museum, Taft, Kern County, California, USA,(2019)
Then as wells continue to lose pressure over the course of their lifetime as the level of oil left in the field drops, water or gas is injected into the ground to maintain pressure as pump jacks continue to draw the oil out of the ground. Finally, when only very heavy and sticky crude oil is left in the ground, steam generated by natural gas-powered turbines is pumped into the ground to liquify and dislodge the remaining thick and sticky oil.
Transformer station in The Midway-Sunset Oil Field, Mocal Road, Fellows, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
With the Midway-Sunset Oil field dependent upon enhanced recovery via steam generation to produce its 70,000 barrels of oil a day, California’s oil reserves are nearly as carbon-intensive to extract as Canada's Alberta tar sands crude. With each extracted barrel of oil from the Midway-Sunset Oil Field having released 725 kg of CO2 which comes close to the 736 kg of CO2 released by the extraction of the worlds 4th most carbon intensive type of oil from the Alberta tar sands.
Chevron pumpjack in the Midway-Sunset Oil Field, 25 Hill Road, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
The enhanced recovery of oil from the Midway-Sunset oilfield also requires up-to five barrels of water to generate steam for every barrel of oil that is pulled from the ground. With water resources in The San Joaquin Valley already facing intensive exploitation for agricultural use and climate intensified drought, the region is expected to experience moderate to severe groundwater stress by 2025. With little pressure being exerted by state regulators, California’s oil producers have few incentives to reduce the carbon intensity of their extraction process which could easily be achieved by creating steam and electricity through concentrated solar thermal technology.
Steam pipes, 25 Hill Road, Taft, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
The Midway-Sunset and Elk Hills Oil Fields that surround Taft and Maricopa have since their discovery, produced over 4.3 billion barrels of oil worth an estimated 172 billion USD dollars. Of those hundreds of billions of dollars, little has stayed in the community, which has seen a sharp economic downturn since its heyday as an oil boomtown, with the town currently experiencing a poverty rate of 21%, even though many of its residents are employed by the oil industry.
Abandoned home, 501 South Kern Street, Maricopa, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Closed business, 523-565 Main Street, Maricopa, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Sign for the Taft Petroleum Club, Petroleum Club Road, Taft, Kern County, California, USA,(2019)
The oil fields that surround Taft were once accessible to the town's inhabitants who were free to observe oil gushers, hunt, walk and drive between the derricks. While some did access the fields for clandestine reasons such as “dripping”, which involved collecting the unrefined petroleum from the traps in oil transmission lines under the cover of darkness, a practised that continued up until the late 1950s, there was little reason to restrict access to the fields. But in recent years the oil fields surrounding Taft, the majority of which are operated by Chevron, have been closed to the public and are now patrolled by private security guards in white pickup-trucks.
The Midway-Sunset Oil Field at night, Mocal Road, Fellows, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
In a growing global trend that has seen oil corporations hire an army of private security guards from firms such as G4S, access to sights of oil extraction have been significantly reduced, a move which has been justified by conflicts in other international oil-producing regions and the threat of domestic terrorism. As a result, industrial accidents in oil fields, such as the 2019 Chevron oil spill that released 800,000 gallons of crude oil and water near McKittrick, can go largely unreported leading to delayed and sub-standard clean-up operations that further compound environmental degradation.
The Midway-Sunset Oil Field at night, Mocal Road, Fellows, Kern County, California, USA, (2019)
Oil was first extracted from oil fields like those surrounding Taft to satisfy the demand for kerosene oil for lamps and as an alternative fuel to coal and wood for locomotives and ships. While initially there was no market for gasoline, which was considered a useless by product of the simple distillation process used to make kerosene, which led it to be burnt off or dumped. Within a short period of time following the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the focus of the industry shifted to satisfy the demand for lighter fuels, including gasoline and diesel, on which the engines ran best.
I. Shell, 615 Poso St, Maricopa, California, USA, (2019)
II. Fast Strip, 296 East Elm Ave, Coalinga, California, USA, (2019)
III. Gas War, 830 Center St, Taft, California, USA, (2019)
IV. Chevron, 100 Kern St, Taft, California, USA, (2019)
Although the first gasoline fuelled four-stroke engine was built in Germany in 1876 and the first commercial production of motor vehicles with internal combustion engines was undertaken by Carl Benz in 1886, the widespread introduction of the automobile came in 1908, when U.S. automobile produced Henry Ford introduced  Ford's mass-produced Model T to the international market. Since the introduction of the Model T, gasoline consumption in the U.S. has soared, from less than 3 billion gallons in 1919, to approximately 15 billion in 1929, 46.5 billion in 1955, and more than 142.23 billion gallons in 2019.
5.7 litre, strait six petrol engine, Turners Auto Wreckers, 4248 S Willow Ave, Fresno, California, USA, (2019)
Yet before the Model T Ford was introduced gasoline-fuelled vehicles had stiff competition from electric cars with more than one-quarter of the almost 4,200 American automobiles produced in 1900 being battery powered. However, the electric vehicle was soon dominated by the Model T with its unlimited range and subsidised fuel costs.
Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, Turners Auto Wrekers, 4248 S Willow Ave, Fresno, California, USA, (2019)
The introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile would go on to shape America’s social, cultural, economic and physical landscape as booming car ownership led to a demand for roads and to the decline, and in some cases, the destruction, of public transport services. As in the case of Los Angeles' tram network, which was scrapped in the 1950's, arguably due to mounting pressure from car manufacture General Motors who had invested in the cities tram lines, the legacy of which still contributes to the decreased mobility of those living in deprived urban areas.
Salvaged car doors, Turners Auto Wreckers, 4248 S Willow Ave, Fresno, California, USA, (2019)
Wrecked Fresno PD vehicles, Turners Auto Wreckers, 4248 S Willow Ave, Fresno, California, USA, (2019)
The mass mobility created by the car led to the sprawling development of unsustainable suburban communities, commuter culture, and the roadside economy as grocery store chains, fast food franchises, drive-in movie theatres, strip malls, gas stations, and shopping centres, all of which were filled with poor quality oil-based products, came into existence to service the mobile consumer.
Topper Motel, East Kern Street, Taft, California, USA, (2019)
With the recognition of oil as a resource of national importance in the U.S., subsidies and tax provisions were quickly put in place to attract investors and companies to the risky enterprise of extraction to ensure a consistent flow of oil. In 1916 a tax break was created to allow oil companies to write off intangible drilling costs, thereby reducing the overall cost of sinking new wells. Over the next 15 years, oil and gas subsidies averaged $1.9 billion (USD 2020) a year and in 1926 the depletion allowance was passed, a tax break which allowed oil companies to deduct more than a quarter of their revenues from their taxable income. As a result, oil extraction remained profitable and fuel prices could remain low to drive economic growth throughout the 20th Century.
Shell gas receipt, 10326, Airline Highway, Saint Rose, Louisiana, USA, (2019)
The Los Angeles Basin was also discovered to contain several major oil fields in the 1920's, many of which are still producing oil today, such as the Signal Hill and Beverly Hills Oil Fields.
Post card showing beach front oil derricks, Huntington Beach Pier, Los Angeles, California, USA, (1953)
Already ranking as the U.S city with the dirtiest air due to its heavy traffic and industrial activity, the exploitation of Los Angeles' oil fields significantly contributes to the cites poor air quality. As a result of the extraction of oil within city limits, chemicals like hydrochloric acid and hydrogen sulfide gas and carcinogens such as crystalline silica and formaldehyde, are released from drilling sites that are close to homes, schools, shopping centres and hospitals.

One of the Signal Hill Oil Field's pump jacks in a McDonald’s car park, Cherry Avenue, Signal Hill, Los Angeles, California, USA, (2019)
Hollywood has long been entangled with the oil industry, both indirectly by it bringing wealth to Los Angeles and thereby setting the stage for Hollywood and directly by financing film productions. Hollywood's stars also benefited, from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra, the later of whom named his first well Crooner #1, who invested heavily in drilling from 1927 onwards as a way of reducing their taxes via the depletion allowance loophole. As a result, Hollywood would become a strong proponent of protecting the oil industries special tax allowances and the industry itself from critics.
Smog over Hollywood seen from Griffith Observatory, 2800 E Observatory Rd, Los Angeles, California, USA, (2019)
Through films like Thunder Bay (1953) and Giant (1956), in which prospectors searched for oil and took advantage of the depletion allowance loophole, Hollywood sought to convey a message that oil exploration could coexist with nature in order to protect its own financial investments. Hollywood’s Disneyfication of the oil industry, it’s by products and the petrol fuelled American lifestyle, was closely tied to McCarthyism and to anti-Communist propaganda during the Cold War. One such example is Destination Earth (1956) an animated film made at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute by John Sutherland Studios that follows the story of a Martian who comes to Earth to learn about capitalism. Through its cartoon narrative the film not only celebrates the oil industry but also vilifies the Soviet Union.

Destination Earth, John Sutherland Productions, 13min 35 sec, California, USA (1956)
As it became increasingly dependent upon oil money and the industries tax loopholes, Hollywood found its patron in actor-cum-Republican President Ronald Reagan who ardently defended the retention of the allowance during his term in the 1980s.

The Hollywood Hills from Griffith Observatory, 2800 E Observatory Rd, Los Angeles, California, USA (2019)
With the seeds of Neoliberalism being sown in the 1970s by the Carter administration, whose deregulation of the U.S airline industry led to a global airline liberalisation trend, worldwide demand of jet fuel has been steadily increasing since 1980. Consumption has more than quadrupled in 50 years from 1.8 million barrels a day in 1980, to 7.5 million at the start of 2020. In 1974 the cheapest round-trip New York-Los Angeles flight that regulators would allow was $1,442, but by 2019 that same route could be flown for $268.
British Airways airplane landing at London Heathrow Airport, London, UK (2018)
Throughout  the 1980’s Neoliberal policy reforms made by Reagan in the U.S and Thatcher in the UK further protected and championed oil’s financial benefit. When North Sea Oil came on stream in 1975, bringing in an estimated £70 billion in revenues and turning the UK into an OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) country and oil-exporter, Thatcher rode a wave of profit that bankrolled the UK’s high unemployment during the decommissioning of its manufacturing industries, the termination of British coal mining, and the boom that turned London into a capital of global Neo-Liberalism in the 1980s. As a result, when on November the 8th 1989 Margaret Thatcher took to the lectern at the United Nations General Assembly to speak about the perils of global warming, there was little chance that oil was going anywhere.
The drill ship Sertao, Tilbury Dock, Tilbury, UK (2018)
As dependence grew on oil to satiate growing demands for energy production and mobility worldwide, developing countries, most of whom did not produce their own oil turned to OPEC countries for oil. When in 1973 the world was wracked by an oil crisis as OAPEC, which consisted of the Arab majority of OPEC countries plus Egypt and Syria, proclaimed an oil embargo, the resulting increase in oil prices forced many poorer developing nations to borrow heavily to purchase essential oil supplies. With these debts still being paid off today, much of the aid given to developing nations by developed nations comes back as debt repayment instead of it being used to enhance quality of life.

$25,000 Standard Oil bond, London, UK (2019)
With the ebb and flow of the financial market strongly tied to the cost of oil, as increasing and decreasing oil prices lead to a reduction or enlargement of the rate of economic growth which in turn raise or lower the expected earnings of companies, the oil sector is regarded as a secure way for states and corporations to invest. With banks like The Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), pension funds like the UK's National Employment Savings Trust and cultural organisations such as the British Museum and Tate all invested in oil and other fossil fuels.
The city, Isle of Dogs, London, Uk (2018)
Just 100 fossil fuel companies including British Petroleum PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, ExxonMobile Corp, Gazprom OAO, and The Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) are responsible for 71 per cent of emissions since 1988. Such corporations, which operate outside the control of anyone state, hide their emissions by offloading them on to developing nations where regulations are less strict. With other petrochemical corporations such as Dupont, BASF, Sinopec, Formosa Plastics, Dow Chemical, and Bauer producing much of the petroleum-derived products that have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from asphalt and tar to chemical reagents, plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, oil is deeply entangled in our cultures and societies.
Plastic jerry can full of unleaded petrol, Devon, UK. (2017)
Although divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with big investment institutes like Black Rock having dropping most of their coal stocks and others beginning to doubt the security of fossil fuel linked stocks as renewable energy technology rapidly improves, a concern that is leading investors to bet against the of performance fossil fuel stock, bailouts, subsidies and investment in new sites of extraction, refining and fossil fuel-based energy generation all continue.
1.01 OIL: A brief history of extraction
Oil powered us through the 20th century and into the clutches of environmental catastrophe. It has controlled the market and fuelled Capitalocene enterprises while enslaving the developing world in debt and putting micro plastics into our bodies. Can the end of oil come soon enough?