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, just the Kern County part of the valley in 2008 had over 42,000 producing oil wells that provided about 68% of all the oil produced in California, which represnets 10% of the entire United States production, and close to 1% of the total world oil production. Add to that another 2,000 producing oil wells in Fresno County. If the Valley was a state in its own right, it would rank right behind Texas, Alaska and Louisiana as the fourth largest oil producer in the country.

The Valley is also home to 21  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 . . . the largest oil field in the lower 49 United States, and Elk Hills . . . the former U.S. Naval Petroleum Reserve.


Lousiana1,463,000 barrels of oil per day
Texas1,331000 barrels of oil per day
Alaska894,000 barrels of oil per day
California719,000 barrels of oil per day
San Joaquin
515,000 barrels of oil per day
Oklahoma177,000 barrels of oil per day
New Mexico171,000 barrels of oil per day



Giant Oil Fields of the San Joaquin Valley

1 Midway-Sunset 1894 2,947 million barrels of oil
2 Kern River 1899 2.035 million barrels of oil
3 South Belridge 1911 1,535 million barrels of oil
4 Elk Hills 1911 1,317 million barrels of oil
* Coalinga
923 million barrels of oil
5 Buena Vista 1909 669 million barrels of oil
* Coalinga East Extension 1928 504 million barrels of oil
6 Cymric 1909 497 million barrels of oil
* Kettleman North Dome 1928 459 million barrels of oil
7 Lost Hills 1910 391 million barrels of oil
8 McKittrick 1896 309 million barrels of oil
9 Mount Poso 1926 299 million barrels of oil
10 Kern Front 1912 212 million barrels of oil
11 North Coles Levee 1938 165 million barrels of oil
12 Edison 1928 149 million barrels of oil
13 North Belridge 1912 143 million barrels of oil
14 Fruitvale 1928 125 million barrels of oil
15 Rio Bravo 1937 118 million barrels of oil
16 Greeley 1936 116 million barrels of oil
17 Round Mountain 1927 113 million barrels of oil
18 Yowlumne 1974 111 million barrels of oil
19 Mountain View 1933 91 million barrels of oil
20 Poso Creek 1938 88 million barrels of oil
  Ten Section 1936 85 million barrels of oil
  Paloma 1934 61 million barrels of oil
  South Coles Levee 1938 59 million barrels of oil
*San Joaquin Valley fields located in Fresno County
  San Joaquin Valley
District 4 (Kern Co.)
District 5 (Fresno Co.)
  14.3 billion barrels of oil
12.2 billion barrels
 2.1 billion barrels
  California   28.3 billion barrels of oil


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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