Pumping Oil and Water
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The 115-year-old Kern River oil field unfolds into the horizon, thousands of bobbing pumpjacks seemingly occupying every corner of a desert landscape here in California’s Central Valley. A contributor to the state’s original oil boom, it is still going strong as the nation’s fifth-largest oil field, yielding 70,000 barrels a day.
But the Kern River field also produces 10 times more of something that, at least during California’s continuing drought, has become more valuable to many locals and has experienced the kind of price spike more familiar to oil: water. The field’s owner, Chevron, sells millions of gallons every day to a local water district that distributes it to farmers growing almonds, pistachios, citrus fruits and other crops.
It is one of the more unusual sources of water, one whose importance has increased in a year when the drought has forced farmers to fallow fields and bulldoze almond orchards. The water is pumped out of the same underground rock that contains oil; after the two are separated, the water flows through an eight-mile pipeline to Bakersfield’s Cawelo Water District, which this year will rely on Chevron’s water for half of its supply, up from an average of a quarter. The district sells it exclusively to farmers for irrigation and reduces its salinity by blending it with water from other sources reports the New York Times.
Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
“These are the years that it really shines, because that water is constant no matter what the hydrology is,” said David R. Ansolabehere, the district’s general manager. “In wet years, it almost becomes a problem because we don’t have so much use for it. But in dry years, boy, it really does come in handy.”
Criticized for its use of water, especially in the process known as fracking, the oil industry is focusing on efforts to conserve and recycle water — or, in this case, to increase the available supply for irrigation. As drought has gripped California and Texas, the nation’s No. 3 and No. 1 oil-producing states, respectively, the industry has taken tentative steps to minimize its freshwater consumption. Some companies are recycling water produced in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, while others have been fracking with brackish water and even without water.
Bob Poole, a spokesman for Santa Maria Energy, a small oil producer in Santa Barbara County, said that oil companies must navigate the politics of drought in California. Santa Maria is planning to build an eight-mile pipeline to bring treated wastewater to its oil fields, where it injects steam and gas into rock to push out the oil in a process known as cyclic steaming.
The company chose to use treated wastewater, which is cheaper than freshwater, Mr. Poole said, adding, “We also felt that it was very important politically.”
In Kern County, oil producers and farmers have coexisted peacefully for decades, but that balance has changed in recent years. Advances in drilling technology have led oil companies to move into agricultural areas. In Shafter, just north of here, dozens of new oil fields are next to almond orchards and other crops. The possible eventual exploitation of a huge untapped oil reserve called the Monterey Shale, which lies under Kern County’s prime farmland, could mean the kind of intense fracking carried out in Texas and North Dakota.
About 760,000 barrels of water a day are produced at the Kern River oil field — compared with 70,000 barrels of oil — and half of the water goes to the Cawelo Water District.
|Oil and Water Don't Mix|
While oil fields pump water for some farmers they have
killed the crops of other farmers.
KERN COUNTY - Fred Starrh, who farms along this industrial front, has seen firsthand what can happen when agriculture collides with oil. On an overcast February day, he drives his mother-of-pearl Lincoln Town Car down a dirt road through his orchards. Starrh Farms has 6,000 acres of pistachios, cotton, almonds and alfalfa. Starrh proudly points out almond trees planted 155 to the acre with the aid of lasers and GPS. At the edge of his land, he pulls up beside 20-foot-high earthen berms, the ramparts of large "percolation" ponds that belong to a neighbor, Aera Energy.
From the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, Aera dumped more than 2.4 billion barrels (or just over 100 billion gallons) of wastewater -- known in the industry as "produced water" -- from its North Belridge oilfield into those unlined ponds, Starrh says. The impact became apparent beginning in 1999, when Starrh dug several wells to augment the irrigation water he gets from the California Aqueduct. He mixed the groundwater with aqueduct water, applied it to a cotton field beside the berms -- and the plants wilted. Eventually, the well water killed almond trees, Starrh says; he points out a few that look like gray skeletons.
Starrh suspected that Aera's ponds were leaking pollutants. So he tested his well water and found high concentrations of chloride and boron along with detectable radiation -- common constituents of the oil industry's produced water. He took Aera -- a joint venture of Shell and ExxonMobil -- to court, and in the nine years of legal wrangling that followed, Aera was forced to disclose its practices. The state's regional water-quality control board ordered the company to stop dumping into the ponds, and Aera launched a cleanup of the site.
Last January, a Kern County jury awarded Starrh $8.5 million in damages and by October, the ponds had been demolished. But Starrh has appealed that court decision, saying he'll need as much as $2 billion to rehabilitate his land and construct terraced ponds to "flush" his soil and groundwater of toxins.
High Country News