It is simply amazing how often journalists and editors can dutifully report the facts as told to them by their sources without bothering to try and understand the larger picture. Specific data, cited as “proof” for a particular theory could in fact be evidence for the complete opposite conclusion if the entire data set was examined.

A clear example of this is the recent use of Bakersfield’s Kern River Field by the New York Time’s recent editorialized reporting in the “Demise of Oil” piece written by Jad Mouarad. [Also posted at EB and Mobjectivist]

This article repeated cited production figures from Kern County’s earliest oil field put into mass production. Unfortunately, for the average reader Mr. Mouarad took but two production figures from the long production history of this field without bothering to consider the entire record of this field and the implications those records demonstrate.

Had he done that, he would have realized the Kern River Field had actually gone through a series of peaks and troughs brought on by new technology, market prices and yes, basic geology.

The Kern River Field was discovered in April of 1899 when Jonathan Elwood and his son James hand dug a 45-foot shaft into the banks of the Kern River, tapping into what would become one of California’s largest oil fields at an estimated 3.8 billion barrels. Production rose rapidly as wells were repeatedly drilled into the reservoir, reaching an initial peak of 47,000 barrels a day in 1906 before declining for the next five decades. Production on this field was hindered by the presence of large quantities of trapped fresh water that needed to be separated out from the produced oil. Whole sections of the field were shut during the Great Depression and again after WWII as sagging oil prices made Kern River oil uncompetitive in the marketplace.

Production had reached a nadir of but 10,000 barrels per day as cited by Mr. Mouarad in the early sixties as cited in the article when Shell Oil introduced steam injection. Production immediately responded, increasing to 68,000 by the end of the 1960s. From there other companies joined in the hunt as is evidenced by the production records. Apparently unbeknownst to the reporter, the State of California (OPI) kept tabs of every single oil well in the state including all 31000 drilled in the Kern River Field and placed them online (from 1977 onwards) for anyone to query.

In any case the findings from the Kern River data are quite interesting.

Figure 1.

When observing the entire graph (and remembering the 1960’s era production figures) it becomes abundantly clear that the Kern River in fact, is well past peak having rolled over January of 1986 at around 155,000 BPD. It plateaued for another ten years around 140,000 BPD before entering the terminal decline which it currently is in around 1996.

This information is entirely lacking from the article and obviously runs counter to the claim that peak oil (in any field) can be mitigated with a hearty dose of technology. The Kern River Field saw a progression of technological innovation over the 108-year lifespan of this field, each time raising production to a peak before declining once again. Each technology improved on the efficiency (early steam injection wells consumed 20-40% of the crude for steam production) resulting in more oil entering the supply yet the long-term trend remained intact.

The rate of recovery for each well is similarly troubling. OPI data shows a clear slide in how much oil can be squeezed from each well.

Figure 2.

Again, the peak in productivity occurred in 1986, coinciding with the peak level of oil production. As noted earlier, the oil producers early steam injection units were pretty inefficient. In the 1980s and 1990s they began to switch them out in favor of natural gas fired co-gen units that produced injection steam and produced electricity for the pumping operations, increasing the amount of oil able to make it to the market. Drilling also increased.

Yet oil production continued to decline.

As usual, the mainstream media dropped the ball on this major issue thanks to shoddy fact checking and a little research. It is also an instructive example how selective use of statistics (whether intentional or not) only serves to cloud the otherwise straight forward arguments in favor Peak Oil. By producing these conflicting pieces, the media sows doubt on the urgency of the issue, much like the Global Warming opponents did throughout the 1990’s. A message that “don’t worry, technology will save us” removes the sense of urgency for us as a society to make the proper preparations.

Data Sources: