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.


  1. The value of the oil produced per acre foot is far greater than that of any crop.Unless one believes water should never be used for anything except drinking, this is a pretty high value use. The West Kern water district serves a lot of the areas, which are largely unsuitable for crops. They depend on wells, augmented with SWP water, which improves quality and recharges the aquifer. If the oil companies took nothing, the other customers would not see any improvement in their water. Of course, they would not care, because they would have moved away when their jobs vanished.

  2. Re: the value of oil per acre-foot being far greater than that of any crop.
    This way that economists have of assigning value drives me crazy. "Crops," in most cases, equate to "food," whic is necessary life support. Oil is not essential for life. The value assignment is skewed to work against truly "valuable" resources.

  3. This is a bit of sophistry to say that "clean" water is used for oil and gas fracking. It is not treated water that is being used for fracking but raw water that is not potable. To say that "clean" water is flowing in aqueducts by small towns that have no "clean" water is nonsense.

    What do they drink in those small towns - oil? They drink potable water from wells that must be treated or from imports that must be treated.

    And what if they put "dirty" water into the ground for fracking? You would never hear the end of the outcry. Dammed if you do, dammed it you don't.

    This was written by someone who obviously is motivated to find some flaw with the process of extracting cheap oil and gas that is ruining the prospect of high priced wind and solar power from coming in the markets in 2012 when California's Green Power Law kicks in.

    AB 375 the Anti-Sprawl Law diverts new development into cities instead of suburbs. But it is in the inland areas of the state where most of the groundwater resources are while big cities are along the coastline. I don't hear any criticism that AB 375 is bad water and environmental policy. So why should we listen to this sophistry?

  4. Reading through the whole exchange I find it interesting that "relatively clean water out of the California Aqueduct" is quickly translated to "clean drinking water."

    Either Mr. Miller doesn't understand that the water carried to various municipalities through the CA is non-potable and must be treated before it can be safely consumed, or he is being purposely misleading in his reporting.

    Either way, it destroys his credibility.

  5. @PP: Small point of clarification: this is water used for steaming low gravity (tarry) oil, so that it can flow to the well bore. Because of the boilers, water with a lot of dissolved salt can not be used. The system is closed, so that the water is typically recovered a time or two.
    The fluids used in fracking (a witch's brew of water and other substances like walnut shells and proprietary chemicals) represent a small overall use of water. I suspect, but do not know, that regular old brine, found all over the world in huge quantities in nearly every hole drilled below 1,000 feet is fine for frac fluid mixing. Fracking has received a lot of deserved attention recently, because, like a poorly done appendectomy, the process is pretty routine, but the consequences if the operator errs can be catastrophic.
    D&J, I farm for a living, and consider it important, even holy, work. But I don't know know whether my crops end up in the belly of a homicidal maniac or the next Albert Schweitzer. Some oil is used to fuel a dictator's limousine, some is used to build medical devices that save our lives. In any event what minute subset of the world's usable water is consumed in oil production will have no bearing at all on the production of food.

  6. I recently came your blog post about my reporting on steamflood operations in Kern County, California.

    I must say, Mr. Zeitland, since the title is "Reporting FAIL," I was expecting some incisive look at a failure in reporting methodology or my conclusions. What you've given instead is a weak, wonky critique that shows a terrible lack of awareness of the environmental and social consequences of oil production in Kern County. I'm also fairly confident that you did not read the article in Orion Magazine, which this interview was related to, so let me recap.


    First, my article was not a policy slog -- the bloodless approach you seem to prefer -- but was aimed at revealing the environmental and social consequences of 100-plus years of oil production in Kern County. Here, in spite of the supposed economic benefits of oil production, there is somehow a persistent unemployment rate of close to 20 percent in the region.

    But the key irony that you have missed is the fact that the oil industry generates a vast quantity of "produced water," a toxic byproduct that comes up in a ratio of roughly 10 barrels per barrel of oil. In spite of this prodigious dirty water source, the industry has opted for the less expensive solution of buying hundreds of millions of gallons a year from the California Aqueduct to generate of steam, which reduces the viscosity of the tar so that it will actually flow through well bores. Rather than treating and reusing their produced water, oil companies dump it into sprawling evaporation ponds on the surface. When the winds blow right, you can smell the benzene and VOCs emanating from their surface.

    Rather than a cynical and simplistic dollars-and-cents approach, I spent weeks in the surrounding oil towns, speaking with local residents, oil workers and academics, seeking to understand the complicated systems that keep these senescent oil fields producing.

    Let's look at your numbers.

    Your analysis that 20 cents of water per $100 barrel of oil is a "pretty good deal" is terribly simplistic and shows a fundamental lack of awareness of the vast up-front costs of production and the externalities imposed in Kern County, in terms of health, infrastructure damage, ecosystem damage, groundwater contamination, not to mention the hard-to-quantify but very real drag on quality of life that comes from living beside industrial blight on this scale. (But it also partly explains, I think, why long-time residents are leaving the west side oil towns of Taft, Maricopa and Coalinga in droves.)

    You are correct to assert that 31,000 acre feet seems small when compared to the water use of many agricultural users in the region. But that is the amount allocated by a single member unit -- the West Kern Water District -- but there are 12 other units under the umbrella of the Kern County Water Agency, several of which represent users on the west side of the valley.

    There is no good way to determine how much water from the SWP is sunk annually into the oil fields of Kern County since oil companies do not have to disclose their water sources and the state does not break down the numbers by specific end user. But a paper published in the journal Environmental Geochemistry and Health in the 1980s by researchers from the Department of Energy estimated that the figure could be as high as 100,000 acre feet of water annually, enough to supply 200,000 households. How many families in the Central Valley forced to drink contaminated well water could be served by that volume? (Of course I'm aware that aqueduct water needs to be treated, but it's far cleaner than the witches brew lurking under these towns.)

    You are correct, I do find those numbers "disturbing" and in need of serious consideration by lawmakers. But it is not my job as a reporter to make policy -- it is my job in this case to reveal the consequences of bad (or non-existent) policy and poor oversight.

    Jeremy Miller

  7. @Jeremy -- thanks for the extensive comment. I agree with most of what you said, but perhaps we crossed wires. If the REAL problem is oil drilling that should not be there, then talk about THAT legislation/fact/etc. Don't look at the price or quantity of water "wasted" as a result of a govt policy.


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