The San Joaquin Valley Oil Industry


Except for a couple of mediocre wells on the "westside" of the
San Joaquin Valley, and a few tar mining operations, farming was the mainstay of the valley in the late 1800s. However, the 1899 discovery of "black gold" in a shallow hand-dug oil well on the west bank of the Kern River changed all that. The Kern River discovery started an oil boom, and a forest of wooden derricks sprang up overnight on the flood plain just north of Bakersfield, a sleepy farm town known to most as "Bakers Swamp". Soon Kern River production accounted for 7 out of every 10 barrels of oil that came from California, and Kern River field by 1903 had made California the top oil-producing state in the country.

Inspired by the Kern River discovery, "oil prospectors" fanned out across the San Joaquin Valley, and derricks began to pop up everywhere. Many discoveries followed, and a string of spectacular gushers at Coalinga, McKittrick and Midway-Sunset fields kept the valley in the oil news. And of course, there was the Lakeview Gusher . . . the greatest oil well the west, for that matter the country, has ever known.

Over a century later, the San Joaquin Valley still produces a lot of oil. In fact, the Kern County part of the valley in 2014 had 44,518 producing oil wells, with another 2,098 producing wells in Fresno County. Historically, about 54% of all the oil produced in California has come from the San Joaquin Valley, but The valley for the year 2014 produced about 74% of all the oil produced in the state. Furthermore, oil produced from the San Joaquin Valley in 2014 represents about 4.8% of the entire United States production, and about 0.5% of the total world oil production for the year. The valley ranks behind Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, and North Dakota as the fourth largest oil producing region in the United States.

The San Joaquin Valley is also home to 22  giant oil fields that have produced over 100 million barrels of oil each, with four "super giants" that have produced over 1 billion barrels of oil. Among these "super gaints" are Midway-Sunset, which is the largest oil field in the lower 49 United States, and Elk Hills, which is the former U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve. The aforementioned 22 giant fields are responsible for 95% of the cumulative historic production, and they were responsible in 2014 for 96% of the annual production for the entire San Joaquin Valley.


Texas 3,166,000 barrels of oil per day
Gulf of Mexico 1,397,000 barrels of oil per day
North Dakota 1,087,000 barrels of oil per day
California 563,000 barrels of oil per day
Alaska 497,000 barrels of oil per day
San Joaquin
418,000 barrels of oil per day
Oklahoma 343,000 barrels of oil per day
New Mexico 339,000 barrels of oil per day

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)



Giant Oil Fields of the San Joaquin Valley

1 Midway-Sunset 1894 3,131 million barrels of oil
2 Kern River 1899 2.195 million barrels of oil
3 South Belridge 1911 1,687 million barrels of oil
4 Elk Hills 1911 1,397 million barrels of oil
5 *Coalinga
958 million barrels of oil
6 Buena Vista 1909 675 million barrels of oil
7 Cymric 1909 587 million barrels of oil
8 *Coalinga East Extension 1928 504 million barrels of oil
9 *Kettleman North Dome 1928 459 million barrels of oil
10 Lost Hills 1910 458 million barrels of oil
11 McKittrick 1896 322 million barrels of oil
12 Mount Poso 1926 304 million barrels of oil
13 Kern Front 1912 232 million barrels of oil
14 North Coles Levee 1938 166 million barrels of oil
15 North Belridge 1912 160 million barrels of oil
16 Edison 1928 154 million barrels of oil
17 Round Mountain 1927 133 million barrels of oil
18 Fruitvale 1928 128 million barrels of oil
19 Rio Bravo 1937 120 million barrels of oil
20 Greeley 1936 117 million barrels of oil
21 Yowlumne 1974 113 million barrels of oil
22 Poso Creek 1938 105 million barrels of oil
23 Mountain View 1933 92 million barrels of oil
24 Ten Section 1936 86 million barrels of oil
25 Paloma 1934 62 million barrels of oil
26 South Coles Levee 1938 60 million barrels of oil
*San Joaquin Valley fields located in Fresno County
  San Joaquin Valley
District 4 (Kern Co.)
District 5 (Fresno Co.)
  15.2 billion barrels of oil
13.1 billion barrels
 2.1 billion barrels
  California   28.3 billion barrels of oil
DOGGR Production Data Spreadsheet


The graph below shows the cumulative annual oil production from the San Joaquin Valley from 1900 to 2000 - a century of oil! Note how as time has gone by light oil has become less and less important to the San Joaquin Valley oil industry, and heavy oil has become more important. This trend is going to continue into the future.



Did You Know?

A little known fact is that the southern San Joaquin Valley, and Kern County in particular, produces a tremendous amount of electricity through a process called steam cogeneration. Because about two-thirds of the oil produced in California is "heavy" (in other words, too thick and viscous to flow on its own), steam is pumped into the ground to heat the oil and make it behave more like water and less like molasses. Thus, steam injection makes the oil more mobile and enables it to flow into wells where it can be produced.

Cogeneration simply means using steam to first turn turbines and produce electricity before the steam is pumped into the subsurface to heat the heavy oil the sandstone reservoirs.

Enough electricity is produced through cogeneration in the southern San Joaquin Valley to supply the power needs for more than 1.5 million homes. This far exceeds the energy requirements of Kern County, so the excess electricity is sent south over the mountains to power-hungry Los Angeles. Were it not for oil-related cogeneration, the electricity bills of Los Angeles residents would be much higher than they are today.


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