Beneath the hillsides and lush green farmland that skirt the Kern River here are the makings of America's richest new oil province.
The numbers tick off in millions and billions, swelling with promise -- and problems.
Fred Hallmark, a California state geologist and authority on the viscous "heavy" oil found here, says "Kern River County has 20 billion barrels in place in shallow reservoirs, and maybe a lot more." It's a massive amount, equivalent to tow-thirds the volume of the nation's proven reserves.
At the same time, Hallmark acknowledges that recovery of heavy oil will present California with a set of enviromental problems that may defy solution "at any price."
As for production, California Independent Oil Producers Association executive James Woods offered this assessment more than a year ago: "With oil decontrol and a reasonable set of enviromental criteria, we ought to be able to add one million barrels of new oil . . . from California heavy oil by the mid to late 1980s."
Since then, President Carter has decontrolled heavy oil. In the last eight months, heavy oil prices in Keru County have tripled from about $6 to nearly $18 a barrel.
While an added half-million or even a one-million-barrel-boost in daily oil production won't get the United States out of its energy dilemma, the expected contribution in California heavy oil will help stem the decline in nationwide oil production.
Development of commercially feasible extraction techniques for heavy oil has triggered a new oil boom here.
The most dramatic public gesture was Shell Oil's $3.6 billion acquisition this fall of Beldrige Oil, a little known Kern County producer with 33,000 choice, oil-rich acres sparwling aroung Bakersfield, Shell's Belridge buyout, which surprised some of the other major oil companies queuing for heavy oil properties, is the largest merger in U.S. corporate history.
There are other boom-time signs as well.
A short drive from country western star Buck Owen's headquarters here, Standard Oil Co., of California, Getty Oil, Union Oil and other industry majors are mounting new production efforts, hard by smaller "mom and pop" operators such as Victory Oil and Two Barrel Oil Co., all of them intent on pumping from the shallow pools of interior southern California into the nation's oil-hungry market.
But there may be bust within the boom, for the Kern County oil drive marks a new round in a decade-long tug of war between advocates of competing energy and enviromental goals.
In most respects, the producers' enviromental headaches in exploiting heavy oil are old standbys, stemming from air and water quality goals Congress embraced years ago. But because of its viscosity, heavy oil does not flow from underground wells or lend itself to easy pumping, and local oilmen have, since the mid-1960s, used steam injection to heat up the oil pools before the petroleum is pumped to the surface.
These so-called "huffnpuff" methods, pioneered by Getty Oil on the Kern River field, are anything but clean.For every three barrels they bring to the surface, injection engineers burn one to generate steam that their process relies on for cutting viscosity. Without steam drive, only 15 percent of the yield in a typical heavy oil field could be produced. With steam drive, engineers can extract up to 50 percent of the oil underground.
Worldwide, some 400,000 barrels of heavy oil are recovered each day with steam, half of them from the massive Kern County fields, the nation's fifth-most-productive oil region. While such a yield is a small fraction of the 50 million barrels consumed daily in the non-communist, world, its technological promise is significant.
As consuming nations drill for oil in less economically attractive fields, such as Alberta's Cold Lake formation and the Orinoco Tar Belt of Venequela, steam generation is likely to become more and more a standard tactic in petroleum exploitation.
Steam injection may free many millions of barrels of heavy oil for commercial production, but with it comes a seemingly intractable set of problems.
In the 50-million-BTU steam generators that a heavy oil operation requires, the oil burned for fuel ranks high in sulfur content, low in environmental graces. Even if drillers could meet federal and state air quality standards by installing scrubbers on steam generators, they still would face a disposal problem what to do with the sulfur-laced sludge caught by the scrubbers, which is classified as hazardous waste.
So far, a solution to these problems has eluded Getty Oil, which earlier this year was forced to reduce its Kern River production by almost 13,000 barrels a day when the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that a bank of Getty steam generators operated without scrubbers didn't meet sulfur dioxide standards.
Gene Young, a member of Bakersfield's pro-industry Board of Supervisors, chafes at what he calls "a snarl of regulatory tape" holding back heavy oil development.
"We get people from the Department of Energy coming down here and saying you've got to escalate oil production. And meanwhile the state air regulators from the California Air Resources Board are in here continuously harassing us," Young says.
Of these mixed governmental signals, Young says, "It's like everything else. Often the Congress or state government mandates rules that work super in some parts of the country, but don't here."
At issue are contrasting emission standards of federal and state agencies.
In Washington, EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Roy Gamse says the oil companies exaggerate their problems.
"There are two ways of looking at it. You either slow down production to stay within air quality limits. Or the companies have to spend an additional $1 to $2 a barrel to meet the pollution costs," Gamse says.
In San Francisco, Clyde Eller, EPA's regional director of enforcement, says that companies such as Getty simply have to face up to the cost of reducing pollution. As for EPA's dealings with producers, Eller says, the federal government is working to find solutions to their enviromental problems.
Union Oil's Carleton Scott complains nonetheless that the problem is not merely meeting EPA and State Air Resources Board criteria -- which in California are administered by local air pollution control authorities -- but in coping with delays in the issuance of permits for steam generations.
"The bottom line is delay. Two and a half to three years is typical, and five years is not out of the question," Scott says. Moreover, he says, the companies end up dealing with two or three different bodies, each with different procedures and standards.
As an illustration, he cited the difference between the federal EPA standard for sulfur dioxide (365 micrograms per square meter) and the state standard (roughly three times tougher: 105 micrograms per square meter over a 24-hour period of production activity).
Countering this view is a member of the local pollution control board, Dr. Leon Hebertson M.D.: "The standards are not too tough. While the companies would prefer to have lower standards the consensus is that they should be able to boost production and still meet them over time."
A final complicating enviromental factor is the topography of this part of California, Bakersfield is in a natural bowl formed by the Sierra Nevada to the east, the masif of the Coastal Range to the west and the Tehachapi Mountains to the southwest. This configuration works to trap pollutants and stagnant air over Kern County especially in midwinter, Getty and other oil firms say Bakersfield's setting makes meeting state and EPA standards more difficult but the agencies demur. "A standard is a standard" declares a CARB member.
Unlike other parts of the state such as Long Beach where a local environmental group fought successfully in court to delay the proposed Standard Oil Co. of Ohio pipeline for years, Bakersfield and its adjoining unincorporated town, Oildale, take a fiercely pro-development stance.
And there is scarcely a discouraging word about heavy oil production from the wealthy farming community here, perhaps because its ranks include Tenneco, Union Oil, Getty, and Belridge concerns that together manage tens of thousands of rich Kern County farmland.
Local politicians such as Oildale's Gene Young bristle at the suggestion from one noted state environmentalist that "Bakersfield and Oildale are towns that just like pollution."
"Just to stop the progress and jobs has never been the Kern County way," Supervisor Young says. "We've done it the hard way and feel caught up in unrealistic goals mandated from the outside."
Behind the local reaction to environmental constraints on the coming oil boom here, says Getty engineer Don Gallaher, is the "tough independent spirit that came with the Okies who migrated here out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s."
By way of example Gallaher cheerfully tells of the time a few years ago when some Hell's Angels motorcycle club members stirred up trouble with a few oil field workers in The Blackbard, a popular Oildale tavern. "The locals didn't take it and thew the bikers out in the street. They just don't like meddling from the outside," the Getty man said.