Oil and Trouble

Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Shakespeare: Macbeth Act 4, scene 1, 10-11

We are under siege. The machines of war surround us. Guy wires support the hundred feet high scaffolding necessary to re-drill old wells - their leases expiring in 2018, and primary production a thing of the past, the oil reservoirs have begun to lose pressure and perhaps the injection of water or steam, or a deeper well can revive productivity. These oil derricks have sprung up like mushrooms on both sides of our high valley. Some stay for weeks and run 24-7 (Bad Dreams) others disappear, work complete, after a few days. Some are lit at night, others are stark silhouettes by day and then melt away into the darkness.

There is talk that the oil companies may have found a way to access the vast off-shore reserves from high on Sulphur Mountain where, on a clear day you can see down to the channel between Ventura and Santa Cruz where lie the Santa Clara and Sockeye off-shore oil fields. A decade or so ago slant drilling was a new development in oil well technology, now horizontal drilling is commonplace.

Steam injection is also being used to squeeze ever more oil from the rock in which it resides. According to the Ventura County Star (06-26-2010),

"Bakersfield-based Tri-Valley Corp. has drilled seven horizontal wells in its Oxnard fields to get at the heavy oil there. These wells are drilled down vertically and over horizontally. It then pumps steam into those wells and pumps oil out. The steam reduces the viscosity of the oil so it becomes thinner and moves into the lower well. The heated oil and water is then pumped to the surface and separated, with the water being cleaned and reused for new steam generation. These types of wells can get up to 60 percent of oil from a deposit."

Schwarzenegger's moratorium on further offshore drilling in California, along with the rising price of oil, is putting greater pressure on the oil fields of Ventura County where 63 idle wells were returned to production in 2009.

It's a dirty business but it is also a staple of the County's economy. I am reminded of the old British, north country saying, 'where there's muck there's brass (money)'; but the wells, the pumps, the pipes and now the drill derricks are, in Upper Ojai, affronts to its residents' mostly lyrical sensibility.

They threaten our cocoon of domesticity: we privilege the aesthetic qualities of the land over its worth to farmers and oil companies. This is at the heart of the practice of land-use zoning: different constituents require distinct guarantees of their rights to use the land in different ways. Oil well infrastructure has few aesthetic champions (although I enjoy my runs through the post-apocalyptical landscape of the Silver Thread oil leases that cover the hills to the west of St. Thomas Aquinas and continue to Osborne Road off the 150).

There is a ranch to the east of Koenigstein on the high plain that is mostly used as cattle grazing that has a gas flare pipe at the entry to its driveway that I covet; and in Saturday Night Special I mention the oil well as lawn ornament in front of the old stone house on the bend below the Summit; but no one is seriously suggesting that oil wells can offer amenity to residential development in the way that citrus groves, golf courses, trout streams and of course, chaparral can.

Some kinds of farming have greater aesthetic value than others. Ojai benefits, a couple of times a year, from the great drifts of orange blossom perfume that rise up from the East End's groves (The Citrus Belt). Citrus can be reasonably well integrated into sporadic residential development, and the fields of lavendar, olives and pixie tangerines at the Evendon's Upper Ojai New Oak Ranch are a delightful complement to the rough charm of the chaparral above them and their neighbor's newly planted vines strike deeply mellifluous old-world notes. More generally however, economic imperatives cut across such fairy tale notions of mixed-use.

Words establish seams of meaning that run through time: each generation transects the seam mostly oblivious to the reservoirs of implication that lie deep in the past. The oil derrick was named after a type of gallows used in the 16th century, which were named for an English executioner, Thomas Derrick. (Wikipedia). On a field near Godalming in Surrey, close by where I grew up, winter rains would manifest a circle of perhaps 100 feet at its interior diameter and 40' wide that appeared as a moat. The depression had been caused by centuries of trampling by townspeople gathered to watch unfortunates hanging from the local gibbet. In Upper Ojai, we are the less than willing spectators to the last rites of a dying industry, watching helplessly as it frantically sucks the last barrels of fossil fuel from the land beneath our feet.