Pando

A Journey Through Oligarch Valley, Pt 4: Moron (Exit 225)

By Yasha Levine , written on September 3, 2015

From The Oligarch Valley Desk

Previously: Septic Tank (Exit 244)

On the western edge of Oligarch Valley’s septic zone, a short drive from the shit fields of Green Acres and the reeking sludge pits of Synagro, is a tiny town called Taft.

Approaching Taft you enter a different world. Smelly agricultural flatness gives way to brown oilstained rolling hills punctured by hundreds and hundreds of active oil and gas wells. The town itself stands out, too. Latinos, who normally dominate nondescript rural Central Valley towns like Taft, are replaced by a doughy, pasty white supermajority.

The windows of the local diner are painted over with oil-field paraphernalia—trucks, hoses, wells, barrels. Sitting in a booth near me is a white guy in camo cargo shorts, Harley T-shirt, flip-flops and a large confederate flag tattooed on his shin. He’s having breakfast with his retiree parents, and they are all bitching about health insurance and medical costs. Confederate or not, I guess certain things are important to all of us… 

Going to Taft is like stepping into a town in northern Texas. The nice lady with a beehive hairdo at Taft’s Chamber of Commerce agreed. “Taft is a slice of Texas,” she said with pride.

Taft is an oil town, and it’s been undergoing a revival, swept up in the toxic fracking revolution that’s taking the U.S. energy sector by storm.

Taft and oil go way back. Officially named “Moron” until the early 1900s, the town of Taft was little more than a railroad pitstop where engineers got more water to drive their steam engines. Taft came into its own in 1910, when workers for the Lakeview Oil Company hit a high-pressure oil pocket and lost control of the well, which gushed out in a fountain of thick crude oil for 18 months nonstop. The gusher, which created a shallow lake of petroleum sludge around it, is still considered to be the largest oil spill in history. After that the race was on: Standard Oil, Midland Oil, Mobil and Texaco all established fields there.

Oil brought jobs, money and lots of white pride. Taft was what polite folk would call a “separate but equal” town, where blacks had to make themselves scarce by sundown or risk being flogged, tarred and feathered, and chased out of town.

Of course, justice was hard to come by given that the local cops were leading members of the KKK.

A 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine reported, “One Klansman was sent to San Quentin prison, but was later retried and acquitted. Another, who said he was proud of the KKK and was kept in public office, has a nearby landmark, Mount Abel, named for him.” The publication sent a reporter down to profile Taft after townsfolk attempted to lynch a group of black athletes after a rumor emerged that one of them had impregnated a local white girl.

“40 to 60 angry white men converged on the dorm yelling, ‘Kill the niggers!’ A handful of blacks 14 who had not gone elsewhere for the weekend hid in the recreation room near the lobby while football-baseball player Craig Tinson of Sacramento, Calif. stepped out to try to reason with the mob. Tinson, an articulate freshman, had just been elected Student Activities Coordinator for next fall, but the crowd was not interested in listening to his speech.

He was chased across Emmons Park Drive toward the Westside Shopping Center. Tinson’s superior conditioning and running speed were all that allowed him to survive what he later described as 'the scariest time in my life.'" 

Yep, Taft is white and proud of its white and black-gold heritage. And today the town is booming with Taft's motels packed with drillers and swarming with wildcatters.

Boosters say there is a whole lot of oil—two-thirds of domestic shale oil reserves, about 15 billion barrels worth—trapped beneath the Monterey Shale, a massive formation sitting underneath Oligarch Valley, from Tejon Ranch all the way up the Bay Area. High oil prices have finally made it cost-effective to extract the thick gooey crude left in the ground. This is achieved with the expensive and highly toxic methods of fracking and thermal recovery, which involves injecting steam and/or water laced with industrial chemicals and solvents to liquefy the oil and pump it to the surface. The infusion of water diluted with toxic compounds makes the practice deadly.

Next to the destructive effects of fracking (cancer, asthma, liver damage, brain damage, general organ failure, poisoned underground water supplies, tap water that lights on fire, earthquakes) Green Acres’ sludge operation seems relatively harmless.

Next: Pt 5: Resnicks (Exit 253)

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Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.