GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

Business

April 6, 2013

Tiny town hopes for jobs tapping huge oil formation

TAFT, Calif. — This two-stoplight town was built on petroleum, and residents here never miss a chance to pay tribute.

A 38-foot monument to wildcatters stands downtown; locals brag it’s the tallest bronze sculpture west of the Mississippi0

Every five years, the city throws an “Oildorado” festival. There’s even a beauty pageant in which young women dubbed “the maids of petroleum” vie to be crowned queen.

It’s all a homage to the bustling days when Taft boasted two giant oil fields and Standard Oil Co. of California was headquartered there. The oil giant left in 1968, jobs dried up, and today the Kern County town is saddled with high unemployment and memories of past glory days.

That could be about to change.

Residents are betting on a second boom from oil trapped miles underground in dense rock formations. It’s part of what’s called the Monterey Shale, where oil deposits span 1,750 square miles through Southern and Central California.

“Everyone and their dog would be working if they find that oil,” said Joe Gonzalez, 53, who began toiling in the oil fields around Taft three decades ago as a roustabout. “It’s a huge deal for Taft.”

But a key question is: Could these modern-day wildcatters actually squeeze oil out of the rock?

Some believe technology that can reach previously inaccessible oil means it’s just a matter of time; others are convinced it’s an over-hyped promise.

Oil companies have begun exploring the Monterey Shale underneath towns like Taft that have survived on oil for a century.

More than 15 billion barrels of oil, or two-thirds of the continental United States’ total deep-rock deposits, is estimated to be locked in the Monterey, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Extracting it could mean enormous wealth if oil prices stay around $97 a barrel, and could pump billions of dollars into the local economy.

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