KERN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
From the "Petroleum Highway" -- a rutted, dusty stretch of California State Route 33 -- you can see the jostling armies of two giant industries. To the east, relentless rows of almonds and pistachios march to the horizon. To the west, an armada of oil wells sweeps to the foothills of the Temblor Range.
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.
The oil company should be "punished," says Starrh. "If you just hit them with a small fine, it becomes just a small expense of doing business."
Many local farmers face the same risk, Starrh believes. Kern County belies the old adage: Out here, oil and water do mix -- and they do so in staggering volumes. Moreover, Kern County's oilfields are a preview of the future of oil worldwide. The industry is moving further into the realm of "unconventional" fuels -- including tar sands, shale oil and "heavy oil," like the oil found here. But heavy oil requires the use and disposal of huge amounts of water. And the consequences are strewn across the local landscape.
Kern County's oilfields, which began producing in the mid-1800s, helped build the Standard Oil empire that eventually evolved into the likes of Chevron and ExxonMobil. The local Lakeview Gusher of 1910 remains California's greatest single strike and one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history; an estimated 9 million barrels spewed uncontrollably from it, creating a lake of oil.
The local oil is "heavy" due to its geology (shallow deposits and tectonic movement) and biochemistry (petroleum-consuming bacteria living near the surface have made the crude the consistency of molasses). In the early days, companies skimmed off the lighter portions of the oil. Over the years, they developed methods to extract the heavier stuff, overcoming the oil's resistance to flow by injecting water and superheated steam underground. These extraction techniques, known as "waterflooding" and "steamflooding," loosen up the oil and push the tar toward closely spaced well bores, from which it is siphoned to the surface by pumps.
Despite their age, Kern County's oilfields still produce about 8 percent of the nation's domestic supply. Tens of thousands of pump jacks stand shoulder to shoulder amid a rusting circulatory system of pipelines. The hillsides glow with flares of natural gas venting from oil wells. And dozens of gas-fired steam generators and cogeneration power plants represent the oil industry's up-front water consumption. They supply steam to the oilfields through ubiquitous silver pipes.
Since the 1960s, when steamflooding was pioneered in Kern County, California oil companies have pumped more than 2.8 trillion gallons of freshwater into the ground -- an annual average large enough to supply a city of one million people. Some of that water is the industry's own recycled wastewater and some is bought from irrigation districts. A large portion of that water use occurs here, and the complicated plumbing is not easily untangled.
Oil companies must report the overall amount of water they inject into the ground to the agency overseeing oil production -- the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. Though they don't say much about it, they get a great deal of this water from California's overburdened irrigation system -- in this case, the State and Central Valley water projects, which use dams and long-distance canals to divert river water to farms and other customers. According to J.D. Bramlet, superintendent of the West Kern Water District, which distributes water from the State Water Project to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, oil companies and steam-producing cogeneration plants (most of which are owned by the oil companies) received 83 percent of the district's 31,500 acre-foot allocation in 2009. That means that last year, oil companies doing business with this single water district took roughly 8.4 billion gallons of water, the bulk of which they use to push heavy oil to the surface.