Professor Anthony Kovscek with Standford University's Department of Energy Resources Engineering
Courtesy Photo

California’s future is bright if we are open to all types and means of energy production, from fracking for oil to solar power, but we must embrace the possibilities and enable industry to progress while upholding strict yet sane environmental standards when appropriate.

That was the overriding message delivered by about 25 speakers to an energetic crowd of more than 300 experts, policy makers, industry players, and nonprofit leaders, who converged at the Santa Ynez Marriott in Buellton last Friday for the California Energy Action Summit, a conference with statewide implications that was hosted by the Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County. With panels and talks ranging from renewable options to how North Dakota embraced its recent booms, the event shone a light on how to make energy production both profitable and responsible, goals that most in attendance could support.

The morning’s keynote was Bill White, former Deputy Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton and a very popular three-term mayor of Houston, Texas. In praising the importance of energy efficiency — a trend he credits in part to California’s cutting-edge building codes that are being replicated elsewhere — he discussed Houston’s ability to be the fastest growing city in the country while decreasing its energy usage. “We wanted to de-link that growth from energy consumption,” said White.

Because of that focus on efficiency as well as the greater reliance on natural gas, since it’s cheaper than coal, White divulged that something crazy happened in 2012. Despite the death of legislation to enact the Kyoto Protocol — which calls for countries to lower emissions by 2020 to 2000 levels — the United States actually accomplished its goals. “Last year, we went below the 2000 standards,” said White. “We beat the 2020 goal in one year.”

The reason why no one was banging drums about it? Two reasons, explained White: One, the biggest natural gas producer and major factor in the victory was Exxon, which had denied climate change just four years before and wasn’t about to proudly take credit for the milestone; and two, the environmentalists who demanded that the Kyoto Protocol was necessary wouldn’t publicly admit that the Protocol proved unnecessary.

White also urged people to be more comfortable with fracking, explaining that millions of wells have been fracked since the 1940s. Aside from dealing with increased truck traffic and ensuring proper water disposal and clean well closures, White said, “The fears don’t line up with the risks.”

Up next was Peter Rupert, head of UCSB’s Economic Forecast Project, who was hired by the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce to assess the impacts of the energy industry in Santa Barbara County. Before diving into his study, Rupert gave a few words of wisdom about why predicting lots of high-paying jobs in domestic oil production was a bad idea. “People like to consume cheap shit,” explained the professor, explaining that governments and companies can only do so much while the public really has the power in its hands.

His study revealed that, on average, oil/energy companies give $4,500 to 11 charities each year and that the industry paid $7.6 million in taxes and was responsible for about 715 jobs directly and 1,600 total jobs including indirect employees. Altogether, the industry contributes $280 million to the county economy. “That’s a quarter billion dollars,” said Rupert. “That’s not chump change.”

Lunch’s keynote was recently elected Assemblymember Shirley Weber from San Diego, who told an entertaining tale about her rise from academia to politics, and how she and the rest of the Legislature are increasingly looking for deals that make everyone happy. “Life is not always an ‘or’ story,,” said Weber, citing a particular matter where she got enviros to work with industry. “There are lots of ‘ands’ in the world.”

Things got pretty technical after lunch with Stanford University energy expert Anthony Kovscek discussing oil-bearing diatomite, the parts of shale formations that can be extracted best using steam injection wells, which essentially pump hot water into the ground that gets sucked up by rocks that then push out their oil resources. His analysis of Kern County revealed that 12 billion to 15 billion barrels of oil could be retrieved from the Monterey shale there. Considering that the nation’s largest oil reservoir in Prudhoe Bay contains about 25 billion barrels, Kern County — as well as Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles counties, which are also home to the shale formation — is sitting on quite a resource, which is only now starting to be exploited on a grander scale.

Perhaps the afternoon’s most awaited discussions came from Kevin Hopkins and Jack Cox, who put together a presentation called “Powering California: The Monterey Shale and California’s Economic Future.” The talk was mostly about the possibilities offered by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and in the Q&A session afterward, Cox explained that California’s future depended upon our ability to deal with risk. “The future of oil … has to address, fundamentally, the question of risk,” said Cox. “If California wants to be totally risk free, we’re going to live like we did in 1850.” When asked how in the world regulation-loving California could ever welcome a boom like North Dakota did, Hopkins wasn’t daunted, explaining, “We believe it can happen in California within a few years too.” See for more.

The day’s final panel was about bringing environmental solutions to energy production, featuring: Beth Marino of Santa Maria Energy, talking about the company’s plans for 136 steam injection oil wells in the Orcutt area, which will utilize reclaimed and treated water from the nearby sanitation district; John Miller of MacPherson Energy, which runs one of the only biomass-powered cogeneration plants in the country; Mark Heisler of GlassPoint Solar, which builds greenhouse-like structure to use solar power to heat water for steam injection wells in California and the Middle East; and Pat Plugge of E&B Green Solutions, an offshoot of E&B Natural Resources that makes eco-friendly cleaning products for oil production facilities.

“The success of the California Energy Action Summit was beyond all of our expectations,” said Lawnae Hunter, president of EconNSBC and the organizer of the event. “The Economic Alliance of Northern Santa Barbara County was thrilled to bring a balanced program about energy, economics, and the environment to the region.”


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