Oil and grapes

An oil well quietly pumps crude next to a Kern County vineyard.

Oil and water mix well for Kern County agriculture

Two Kern County, Calif. industries have been neighbors for decades, quietly going about their own business. A PBS story suggests those two could become even closer in the coming months as drought ravages the region.

While California reservoirs dry up and regulators refuse to turn on surface spigots to agriculture, the oil industry is being hailed as a possible savior for some.

The story says that oil extraction actually produces more water than it does oil – by a ratio of 9:1. Because the tail water from the oil production is too salty, some of it is blended with fresh water to irrigate permanent crops in Kern County. Because no surface water deliveries are available for one water district to blend the brackish water for growers in the district, other measures are being considered to simply keep trees and vines alive this year.

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Water generated by the oil industry is pumped with the oil. Some is used to make steam that is injected back into the ground to extract more oil. Some water is pumped underground where it is trapped between rock layers and other water is stored above ground for use by agriculture. According to the story, Cawelo Water District receives about one-quarter of its supply each year from Chevron.

Recycling the water that comes from these oil wells is a promising source of water for agriculture. Developing the technology to treat this water and make it useable for agriculture is already a direction people are looking. It’s one which needs to have further consideration as California looks for ways to meet the water needs of its multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. Given the arguable public benefit this creates, maybe there is room in state budgets to fund research efforts to develop cost-effective means to treat such water.

How much more of a boon could it be for oil companies in California to be at the forefront of helping find the technology to help agriculture solve its water issues? Selling oil and water to a world that needs both to fuel its economic engines and feed growing populations could not only make shareholders and boards of directors happy, but give an added public image boost to an industry long accused only of mining a finite resource for profit.

While the water generated from oil exploration won’t replace all of agriculture’s water needs, any water it can provide is that much more that can be used elsewhere while other new sources of water for communities, environmental use and agriculture are developed.


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