When Water & Oil Mix
Residents of California, and students nationwide, know full-well the importance of the San Joaquin Valley in the food production of not just the U.S., but the world over.
It’s been estimated that at the height of its agricultural production the San Joaquin Valley could feed every person in the world. Unfortunately, in the past several years, California has faced an increasingly dry climate, with precipitation levels only about 20 percent what they would normally be statewide. This puts every county in California between the drought categories “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought”—the highest level which more than 50 percent of the state is in.
However, just northeast of Bakersfield, there is a seemingly unlikely ally in the agricultural world. Chevron, the California-based oil and gas company (ranked 12 on Fortune’s Global 500 list for 2014), operates a series of oil wells at the Kern River Field, which is the fifth largest oil field in the country, producing 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
Oil however is far from the most abundant resource that is produced at the field. According to Chevron’s lead land representative for the region, Abby Auffant, the field produces about nine barrels of water for every barrel of oil, or approximately 760,000 barrels of water per day. Chevron uses a portion of this water in a process referred to as steam flooding.
“The oil that we produce from the Kern River Field is very heavy and very viscous; think molasses,” Auffant said. “It”s a very heavy consistency. So in order to produce that oil from the ground, we need to reduce that viscosity and the steam flooding operations increasing the temperature of the oil makes it easier to produce from the ground.”
The rest of the water, some more than half, goes through a water treatment process that separates it from the oil. According to Auffant, the water treatment necessary is minimal.
“The water that”s produced is at near fresh water quality standards. So it goes through minimal filtration at our facility in the Kern River Field before it is transported over in an approximately 8 and one-half mile pipeline to the Cawelo Water District.”
The water is tested in numerous locations along the supply line by a third party inspection agency that ensures cleanliness and alignment with various quality standards.
The Cawelo Water District (CWD) supplies water to about 90 high-yield farms over 45,000 acres of casino pa natet farmland. As reported by The New York Times in July, in normal years when California was not facing such extreme drought conditions, water from the Kern River Field facility would make up about 25 percent of the CWD’s total supply. However, in the current climate, that number is closer to 50 percent as other sources of water “dry up.”
“These are the years that it really shines, because that water is constant no matter what the hydrology is,” said David Ansolabehere, the CWD’s general manager told The New York Times. “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.”
The CWD would normally purchase water from external sources for $30 to $60 per acre-foot, but today in California, as pointed out by The New York Times, the price can be as high $1,300 per acre-foot, making the cost for Chevron’s water a steal by comparison.
“Essentially, Cawelo is reimbursing Chevron for the costs to get the water from our facility at Kern River Field to their facility and that works out to approximately $30 per acre feet,” Auffant said. “Water Districts and oil companies speak in different terms. We speak in barrels of water per day. They speak in acre-feet,” or the amount of water necessary to fill an acre one foot high.
Though it makes a massive difference, Chevron’s supply comes far from being able to solely sustain farmers in the area. Since the water produced at the Kern River Field has a higher salinity, it must be diluted with freshwater from other sources before it is suitable for irrigation purposes.
With the drought as potentially disastrous for farmers’ business as it is, Chevron’s water program objectively, from a mathematical standpoint, seems to be hugely beneficial to the community. But when speaking about not only the food, but livelihood for millions of people, the matter becomes one of passion.
“I’ve always felt that we could feed the world if they’d allow us enough water,” said Roy Pierucci, a pistachio farmer in Kern County, in a Chevron video about the program. “Every drop of water that we can get from any source is vitally needed and to have it available all the time is just great.”
The severe drought continues to press on numerous industries. A study released in May by the University of California, Davis predicted a cost to the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural industry of roughly $1.7 billion and a loss of over 14,500 jobs if dry conditions persist.
Chevron states that it remains openly committed to doing all it can for the continued well-being of its community in Kern County and the economy that relies on it.
“We”re very in-tune with the drought conditions within the state,” Auffant said. “In our operations, over 81 percent of our total water output is used for beneficial purposes within the state. Between our program with Cawelo and our program within one of our other fields, as well as the reuse of our water for enhanced oil recovery instead of pulling on other water resources to be able to produce the valuable resource of oil, [we are committed].”
In addition to the water that Chevron supplies to the CWD, Carla Musser, the company’s policy, government and public affairs manager, added that Chevron regularly leases grazing rights for sheep and cattle on company-owned land.
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