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One County’s Dirty Energy Legacy

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View David Lawlor's blog posts
10 February 2011, 3:38 PM
Examining the environmental impacts of Central California’s oil industry
Nodding donkeys near Maricopa in Kern County, California. (Photo: Antandrus)

It was nearly midnight, but it wasn’t dark. Standing more than a mile away in an illuminated watermelon patch, I could hear its spectacular roar; akin to the release of liquid propane burning off into a hot air balloon. And I could feel it. The searing heat radiated from the blazing column, transforming the landscape into an open-air sauna. I snapped a few photos, hopped back in my car, and navigated through a maze of oil field service roads back to the highway.

The 1998 Bellevue blowout in Kern County, California’s Lost Hills Oil Field was big news in the southern San Joaquin Valley where I grew up. Oil is the ever-present background hum to life in Kern County. The nodding donkey—or pumpjack if you want to get technical—dots the county’s hills and roadsides, pumping heavy crude from wells thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface.

And while the Bellevue blowout was the local buzz for weeks—the exploded well gushed natural gas and petroleum condensate in the form of an enormous fireball stretching more than 300 feet into the sky—it seemed eerily normal. Yep, folks would say, it was a big blowout; probably the biggest they had ever seen. When would it be capped or extinguished? Nobody really knew, but it sure was an interesting spectacle for motorists whizzing by on the interstate.

While he does not discuss the Bellevue blowout, Jeremy Miller’s recent piece in Orion magazine, “The Colonization of Kern County,” does an excellent job of describing life in the oil-rich region. And his descriptions, aligning pretty well with my personal memories, are of a place where oil drilling’s inherent externalities—environmental destruction, poisoned water, air pollution, climate change—are seldom discussed or worried about. What does the dirty energy infrastructure of Kern County’s oil industry look like? Miller tells us:

A large pond, hundreds of yards long, lies on the other side of a fallen barbed wire fence that was posted with a sign warning of cancerous substances in “detectable amounts.” The site, which is managed by Valley Waste Disposal, an outfit administered by the oil companies themselves, is less than a mile outside of Taft, near the airport. The air is tinged with the sweet, alcoholic scent of benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals thought by some to contribute to low birth weight and diminished IQ in children exposed in utero. Within minutes, my sinuses begin to burn and my head aches. Although state law decrees that ponds like this are not supposed to be used for petroleum discharge, black, oily pools mixed with jet-black mud lie in the basins.

If EPA regulations and job creation numbers and the like don’t interest you—if they fail to convey how vital realizing a clean energy future is to our nation’s security and health—then read Miller’s article. He paints a masterful picture of a resource colony laid waste by oil companies unconcerned with the health hazards and environmental destruction its industry foments. As dirty and polluted as it is, the lasting legacy of Kern County could be a cautionary tale about the environmental ruination that comes part and parcel with the oil industry.

Great article. I remember this well. The author is correct, it just was another day in the oil industry. The pollution was tragic.

I've read other articles by Lawlor. I like his writing style.

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