Free Markets, Free People


Chevron’s Kern River Basin – Things That Make You Go “Wow”!

As most of you know I took a short trip to beautiful Bakersfield California a couple of weeks ago at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute (who paid for the trip) to tour Chevron’s Kern River Basin oil fields. Here’s a short intro video by API that will get you into the game.

Jeff Hatlin, the guy describing most of the facilities and the area, was a fabulous tour guide. And the rest of the staff there (Jim Swartz, David Boroughs, Carla Musser, Ray Thavarajah, Kevin Kimber, Kelly Lucas and Omer Saleem) took a day out of their busy schedules to acquaint 4 bloggers with a huge asset that has been producing oil for over 100 years. My thanks to all of them.

As you might imagine, the “easy oil” days of yore are long over. As Jane Van Ryan, the narrator of the video, notes, the area was first discovered because oil was literally seeping out of the ground. No more. The oil produced at Kern River is what is known in the industry as “heavy oil”. That means the viscosity is very high. For many years in the early days, its viscosity limited its use to asphalt and roofing tar.

That presents an interesting set of problems when you talk about recovery. You’re trying to pump some pretty thick stuff out of the ground and, as you can imagine, that takes a whole bunch of energy. And the oil doesn’t sit in pools, but is distributed throughout the sand layers. So it seems obvious that the way to address the problem is to find a way to lower the viscosity of the oil and cause it to flow before trying to recover it.  As you might imagine, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The way Chevron has addressed those needs is through steam flooding and new drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling.

You saw Jeff Hatlin talk about how that steam is generated (and you got to see the steam generators in the video) and injected into the ground. In the 20 square miles of the Kern River Basin facility, there are approximately 770 steam injection wells helping the 8,700 production wells bring up the oil from depths of over 1,000 feet. What the steam injection wells have allowed Chevron to do is move the field from its primary production days, when only 5-10% of the oil was being recovered, to a production percentage between 50 to 80% with steam flooding. This enhanced recovery technique has helped Chevron keep the field at an 80,000 bpd production rate when, without it, it would be producing very little oil at all.

Another technique which allows more efficient recovery is the 3D modeling that you saw Dale Beeson talking about.  The model in the video has 155 million cells, each 50′ x 50′ x 2′.  That’s a massive amount of information stored, updated and accessible to the Chevron staff as they plan their next wells.  Much of the data for this model is gathered through 660 “observation wells” drilled strategically over the vast property.  Temperature and fluid saturation are monitored allowing for efficient heat management and the location of the richest oil deposits. It is through the integration of that information plus the nearly 1,000,000 data points gathered through out the field on any given day by other means, that Chevron meets its goal of reducing its production decline in the Kern River Basin to 1% a year.

A final technique introduced into the Kern River field in 2006 is horizontal drilling. The 3D modeling helps Chevron exactly pinpoint layers of oil producing sand and using advanced drilling techniques, precisely place the horizontal well in that sand layer. To give you an idea of the efficiency difference, a typical vertical well will produce about 3 bpd of oil. A horizontal well will produce about 100 bpd.

Given all of that, however, there was something else I learned that just blew my mind. While they’re producing that 80,000 bpd of oil, they’re also pumping up 555,000 bpd of water. In fact they joke about really being a water production facility which produces oil as a by-product. That’s more true than you might imagine.

But it also means they must process a half a million barrels of water a day, separate the oil from it and do something with the remaining water. This is where it gets interesting. You heard Jane mention they process and purify some of it through walnut shell filters for agricultural use. In fact, they have about 272,000 bpd in excess that they send through that process and then is sold to California for use in growing all those luscious veggies Californians are so wild about. My guess is that most of California has no idea that’s the case. That avocado you’re enjoying may have been produced with water from Chevron’s Kern River Basin field.

So what do they do with the remaining 231,000 bpd of the water they pump up?  They make steam.  Lots and lots of steam.  And that brings us to something else of which I’m pretty sure the average Californian isn’t aware.  Part of that steam powers up to 20% of the California electrical grid.   It’s called ‘cogeneration’, and Chevron has actually built steam powered electrical plants on the field which are plugged into the California power grid and provide on-demand electricity.  They use the waste steam generated in the steam injection process to power these plants.  Clean energy and highly efficient clean production.

That’s what had me saying “wow” at the end of the trip.  Two critical commodities to California – electricity and water, produced as  by-product of a third critical product, oil.  And all three are produced in a efficient, environmentally friendly way.

If I were Chevron, I’d be telling this story everywhere I could.  It’s not quite the resource-raping, greed-is-king “Big Oil” caricature the media and many of our politicians are fond of painting, is it?

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2 Responses to Chevron’s Kern River Basin – Things That Make You Go “Wow”!

  • I’m glad you’re saying “wow” about cogeneration!  I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that’s leading the charge on that front.  The company’s founder Tom Casten is a giant in this field and actually coined the phrase “combined heat & power,” which is the name most commonly used in Europe for cogeneration.  DOE and EPA estimates suggest the U.S. could get 40% of its electricity supply from energy recycling technologies, while at the same time slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.  That’s as much as if we removed every passenger vehicle from the road.  Meantime, costs would drop due to increased efficiency.

    So why isn’t more being done?  Simple: government regulations.  A variety of regulations protect monopoly utilities at the expense of efficiency, making it very hard for energy recycling to reach its full potential (though it’s doing better in California than in any other state).  If we open up the market in the right ways, energy recycling would explode, helping in the fights against both climate change and high power prices.

  • Excuse me Miggs but does this <blockquote>So why isn’t more being done?  Simple: government regulations.  A variety of regulations protect monopoly utilities at the expense of efficiency</blockquote>mean that perhaps lobbyists from monopoly utilities have swayed out elected officials?

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