Compared to light oil production, the
extraction and refinement of heavy
oil entails significant increases in
greenhouse gas emissions.
of desiccated hillsides, parched townships, and wind-stripped
fields gathered to a grim aesthetic crescendo—every drop of
fresh water counts, the landscape declaimed.
And yet oil companies remain deaf to the clatter, insulated by
piles of cash and overworked and compliant regulators who — in
spite of persistent water shortages —do little to oversee the fate
of water once it enters California’s intricate and staggeringly
expensive irrigation systems. As the San Joaquin Valley’s soil,
people, and economy go dry, Chevron, Aera Energy, Berry Petroleum, Occidental, and dozens of other, smaller petrocompanies
continue injecting vast quantities of clean, imported water into
the ground for the sole purpose of making lazy oil move.
Oil companies call the fresh water they buy from outside
sources “makeup water.” It’s di;cult to gauge exactly how much
of this makeup water comes from the State Water Project, since
oil companies are not required to disclose the sources of their
water, and no state agency tracks the fate of State Water Project
water after it has been sent down the pipe. “Once we deliver the
water through the aqueduct to the local agencies it’s their business what they do with it,” said Don Strickland, a spokesperson
for the Department of Water Resources. “It’s sort of like buying
a car from an auto dealership. The dealer isn’t going to sell you a
car and then tell you what you can and can’t use it for.” But a 1983
report by the Department of Energy predicted that Kern County
oil producers would require an average 34 million gallons of
fresh water per day—or 12 billion gallons over the course of a
year — from the state’s already overburdened irrigation systems.
A subsequent study published in the journal Environmental Geochemistry and Health by two researchers from the DOE report
pushed the figure as high as 85 million gallons per day—or
close to 100,000 acre-feet of water annually — enough to supply
more than 200,000 households with water for an entire year.
The West Kern Water District, one of thirteen member units
under the umbrella of the Kern County Water Agency (itself
one of the largest water agencies in the world), delivers roughly
twenty-six thousand acre-feet of water to oil companies annually.
Much of the fresh water delivered from West Kern ends up at
dozens of gas- and coal-burning “cogeneration” power plants that
stand amid Kern County’s oil fields. Most of the plants are owned
and operated by the oil companies themselves and are key intermediaries in the water-oil exchange being carried out here.
The primary purpose of the water piped to the plants is to
generate electricity for oil field operations. Surplus electricity (that which isn’t used to power, say, heavy machinery in oil
fields) is sold to local utilities. But the equally vital “secondary”
purpose is to generate massive quantities of steam needed to get
the heavy oil out of the ground. Thus, every time ratepayers in
the region fire up the flat screen television for Sunday morning
football, they are subsidizing steamflooding in Kern County.
Moreover, as I learned from J. D. Bramlet, director of opera-
tions for the West Kern Water District, oil companies do not seem
to be subject to the same vagaries of weather as the region’s farm-
ers. I asked, “If West Kern only gets 5 percent of its allocation
from the State Water Project, does that mean that oil companies
will only get 5 percent of their allocation from West Kern?”
“No,” Bramlet replied.
“But how can water that does not exist be delivered?”
Bramlet took a deep breath, as if explaining an elementary
concept to a particularly dense grade-schooler. He pointed out
that the district’s “water banks”— underground reservoirs used
to store surplus water —are sometimes su;cient to meet short-
falls. “But it could also mean we’ve got to go out and work a trade
or pay someone a higher rate for water,” Bramlet said. “It can be
a pretty good deal if they speculated and went out and contracted
for water at what the rates were five years ago.”