Tuesday, November 13 , 2018, 3:34 pm | Fair 70º

 
 
 
 

Letter to the Editor: Measure P and a Stick in a Bucket

I am an electrical engineer who consults with oil fields in Santa Barbara County. I was at a meeting a few years ago where a petroleum engineer brought in a bucket of oil and stuck a stick in it. The stick stood straight up. The petroleum engineer wanted to make the point that we needed to heat the gathering lines to keep the oil liquid if the oil flow were to stop for any reason. He could have explained about thermodynamics, temperature-viscosity relationships and so on, but nothing got our attention like seeing that stick stay straight up in that bucket of oil.

This field produced heavy oil that at room temperature was thick as tar. To get the oil out of the ground, the field injected steam into the ground to heat up the oil and allow it to flow to the well. Where does the water come from for the steam?

What many people may not realize is that an oil well typically pumps more water than oil. The water has to be separated from the oil before the oil can be sold to the oil refineries. That’s what the tanks are for that you see at an oil field. The oil floats to the top of the tank and spills over to a shipping tank, and the water is taken off the bottom of the tank. If the water isn’t used for steam production, it must be injected back into the formation.

When the water is used for steam production, it has to be cleaned up and softened to get rid of any hydrocarbons and undesirable minerals. This is a very expensive and highly technical operation requiring skilled labor to both design and operate.

When first working for the oil fields, I asked why they just didn’t drill a water well in the shallow aquifer above the oil formations instead of spending millions on the water treatment facility. I was told that wasn’t even an option.

The steaming operations at oil fields require people skilled in information technology (IT), instrumentation, combustion engineering and so on. It is a highly regulated industry, so the oil fields also need people who understand and can implement the regulations. Since the rise in oil prices over the past few years, there has been a tremendous opportunity for young people with these skills to find well-paying jobs in the oil fields in Santa Barbara County as the new oil that is being developed typically is the heavy oil that requires these “enhanced” extraction methods to get out of the ground.

In talking with the average oil field personnel these past few months, first we were not that concerned about Measure P since fracking was not something that these fields did or planned to do. But the more we learned, the more concerned we became as Measure P would also curtail using steam. Our jobs are directly related to steam production.

When considering how to vote on Measure P, please make an informed decision. Both the proponents and opponents of Measure P will state their case in the coming months. We who are associated with the oil industry are confident that the oil industry will explain their side of the issue. The proponents of Measure P have made serious claims about the use of “enhanced” extraction methods (including steam) yet haven’t shown one case where steam has caused groundwater pollution or used water that could have been used for drinking or irrigation, even though steaming has been done for at least the past 50 years in Santa Barbara County.

Please keep in mind that many jobs are at risk if Measure P passes. There is no getting around the fact that steam is needed to get the oil out of the ground. That was clear to us when we saw the stick in the bucket.

Gary Wilson
Pismo Beach

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