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Calif. Field Goes from Rush To Reflection of Global Limits

When oil was discovered along the the Kern River bank in 1899 near Bakersfield, Calif., thousands of fortune seekers, oil companies and railroads rushed to the state, setting up fields up and down the coast.

Some of the biggest obstacles to getting more oil out of the ground are not geological but political. In the United States, oil companies are trying to persuade Congress and state governments to remove prohibitions on drilling in Alaska's wilderness preserves and on the Outer Continental Shelf off the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico coasts. Environmental groups and leading Democrats in Congress counter that the wilderness and offshore prospects aren't big enough to fundamentally alter the U.S. or world market.

Mexico's constitution forbids alliances with foreign oil companies, which often have the technology and expertise required for exploration and production. In Nigeria, insurgents from the oil-rich Niger River delta, eager for a greater share of petroleum revenue and unhappy about environmental degradation blamed on production, have blown up oil facilities and trimmed 20 to 30 percent of the country's output. Venezuela has been bickering with foreign companies and employees of its state-owned oil company, and production has never returned to the level that preceded a labor strike that ended in 2002.

And in Iraq, where the world's biggest untapped prospects lie, violence and the absence of a national petroleum law have kept major oil firms from investing. If these problems could be resolved, experts say, Iraq's production could nearly triple.

These foreign impediments are part of the reason so many U.S. companies keep drilling holes in the United States. California, which has accounted for about one-third of the oil produced in the United States, is like a pin cushion. At the Kern River field, Jeff Hatlen and other Chevron engineers and technical experts are trying to wring the last oil from the earth there. One well drilled in 1902 is still producing.

"When I came here 30 years ago, people thought this would be shut down in 15 years," said Hatlen, a senior technical adviser at Chevron, as he paused beneath the brutal sun at the spot where the original prospectors drilled.

This area of California is the setting for the fictional story told in the film "There Will Be Blood." But the region has lost any frontier feel it once had. Drive down Interstate 5, steer through the suburban tracts and malls of Bakersfield, and the road leads to Chevron's strange landscape.

Silver steam pipes wind their way along the dusty roads and up and down the hills here. Small collection tanks dot the area. Crews tug and push drilling equipment into place for new wells.

Even in the parking lot of the main office, small derricks are busy sucking oil from the ground. Inside, workers scan an electronic topographical map mounted on the wall displaying daily production and maintenance orders. Elsewhere in the building, geologists study three-dimensional seismic maps of the rock below in search of the last oily pockets.

When he worked in Saudi Arabia, Hatlen recalled, some wells produced 25,000 barrels a day. By comparison, extracting oil from the Kern River field is like filling the world's gas tank with an eye dropper. Still, he added, "This is important for Chevron and the country because if we do it economically, it can be useful to our company and country."

Standing beside the river bank where oil first seeped to the surface, Hatlen reflected on nature's legacy. "The river has flooded here for 5 million years and laid down these sediments," he said.

After the discovery of oil, it took 85 years to produce the first billion barrels from the field. It took 24 more years for the next billion. And Hatlen and Chevron hope to milk out 650 million barrels or so more over the next couple of decades.

If they succeed in retrieving those final drops, it would be an achievement of modern technology. But then all the oil that can be recovered here -- the inheritance of a natural confluence of events lasting millions of years -- will be gone.


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