10 Mar 2011

Reporting FAIL

TS sent me this story about the use of water for extracting oil in Kern County, California:
GELLERMAN: So they're using clean drinking water to extract oil from tar sands?

MILLER: They are, yeah. One of the hiccups of steam flooding, if you will, is that they can't just use any water to do it. It's sort of like your coffee maker. If you use dirty water in your coffee maker, you're going to get stuff precipitating out onto the heating elements of your coffee makers. So the oil companies need a clean, fresh source of water.

One shocking thing that I found in my research is that back in 1985 when oil was at its peak in California, in Kern County it took about four and a half barrels of water to generate one barrel of oil. Okay, four and a half barrels of fresh water to generate one barrel of oil. Well, that oil field is in decline now. Today it takes close to eight barrels of water to generate one barrel of heavy oil.[1] It's enough water to supply 200,000 households, or about 500,000 people, for a year.[2]

GELLERMAN: From reading your article, this is an area where the aqueduct carrying clean drinking water goes right past towns that don't have clean drinking water.

MILLER: Exactly. There are dozens of small towns within sight of the aqueduct, as you say, that don't have access to clean drinking water.[3] So that water flows right past to the oil fields and these towns are forced to deal with well water that they have, which in a lot of cases is contaminated with agricultural pollutants and other natural pollutants.

Yeah, it's a landscape that's defined by drought. It's a semi-arid desert. I mean, this is an area, where, like you say, every drop of water counts.

GELLERMAN: You know, it's really disturbing to read and think that our addiction to oil, or our need for oil, is so great that we would use water - water that's scarce - to extract oil from the ground.
Let's look at some of these statements:
  1. A barrel of oil is 42 gal. Eight barrels have 336 gallons. Given that oil costs about $100/barrel and an acre-foot of SWP water costs about $200, that's spending about 20 cents of water for $100 of oil.
  2. Earlier, Miller says that "about 31,000 acre-feet" are used for extraction. That's about 16 people per acre foot per year, or 55 gcd, which is kinda low.
  3. Property rights are a bitch, but we don't hear people saying "wow, that nice car just drove by and all I have is a bike. Give ME that car." The water in those pipes is owned. Perhaps the government distributed those rights in corrupt ways, but the way forward is to either use a political process to reallocate it or sell it in a market. We cannot fix the present allocation by being "disturbed."
Bottom Line: Water allocations are sometimes surreal, but the solutions to those allocations have to fit reality.