The oil industry has made Bakersfield a world city, and it has spurred innovation and speculation like nothing else.

Once, oil was so new and utterly captivating that stockbrokers considered opening a Bakersfield Stock Exchange. Once, the task of extracting the precious tar seemed so daunting, men laughed when Thomas Edison suggested that eventually wells would go a mile-and-a-half deep.

A generation later, a Kern County well bore down nearly twice that depth. Bakersfield innovators extracted oil from unwilling sand and turned molasses-thick crude into pliable fluid. They won two great wars and helped build a city where once there was just a farm town.

It all began rather explosively. On March 14, 1910, pressurized oil blew through a well casing on a rig near Taft. Over 18 months, the Lakeview Gusher spewed some 9 million barrels of crude oil, giving this rapidly industrializing nation undeniable evidence that the southern San Joaquin Valley would be a prolific repository of the nectar of commerce -- petroleum.

Today, Kern County is still the most bountiful source of oil in the western United States, supplying more petroleum than the entire state of Oklahoma. The ongoing, ever-challenging quest for the fuel of industry fuels the economy of Kern County like nothing else, affecting every home, every business, every resident.

Kern County produces between 66 and 75 percent of California's in-state oil and about 58 percent of the state's total natural gas. Kern County's Elk Hills field is the state's top natural gas producer and two others, South Belridge and Lost Hills, rank in the state's top five. The state's top five oil-producing fields -- Midway-Sunset, South Belridge, Kern River, Cymric and Elk Hills -- are here as well, and three of them -- Midway-Sunset, South Belridge and Kern River -- are among the top 10 in the U.S. Combined, they produce about 560,000 barrels of oil per day.

The local industry also produces electricity as a by-product from steam used in the oil fields. Steam cogeneration from oil fields in the southern San Joaquin Valley produces much of the electricity used in both Kern and Los Angeles counties.

Oil is also a vital player in the local economy. The petroleum industry provides jobs for about 15,000 people in Kern County, most of whom live in Bakersfield, and the value of the lands owned by industry players accounts for a huge portion of the property tax base. The ongoing downturn in oil prices is having a devastating effect on local government's ability to provide important services.

This first appeared in a Californian special publication, "The story of us," Aug. 6, 2016.

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