The discovery well for the Kern River Oil Field was hand-dug in May 1899 in the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County, Calif. The Kern River Oil Field had produced about 2.2 Bbbl of heavy oil by year-end 2014, one of the top five U.S. oil fields.

In 1901 the Kern River Oil Field was producing 12,000 bbl/d. The field was still producing at a rate of about 70,000 bbl/d in 2014. The discovery well on the Means Ranch was plugged and abandoned in 1995.

A California Historical Landmark marker at the well site said, “Oil was discovered at 70 ft [21 m] in 1899, when Tom Means persuaded Roy Elwood and Frank Wiseman, aided by Jonathan, Bert, Jud and Ken Elwood, George Wiseman, and John Marlowe, to dig here for oil. On June 1, 1899, 400 ft [122 m] to the north, Horace and Milton McWhorter drilled this region’s fi rst commercial well.”

A quote in the “History of Kern County, California” described the 1904 market, which sounds a lot like today, “Oil men estimated that under 25 cents per barrel they could not produce oil, pay expenses and set aside the sinking fund to meet the value of their investments against the time the wells went dry.”

On May 18, 1999, Texaco celebrated the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Kern River Oil Field by Jonathan and James Elwood. “In May 1899 the father and son team used shovels and hand augers to dig a single 45-ft-deep [14-m-deep] well, which was the first of many in this prolific oil field,” according to a press release.

In the “History of Kern County, California,” Jonathan Elwood took much more of the credit for discovering the field. “Means for a long time past had been seeking to interest someone in the oil prospects on the north side of the river. Accordingly he was only too glad to give James Elwood a favorable lease, and Elwood wrote to his father, Jonathan Elwood, who was living in Fresno County and who was an old prospector, to come and help him find the Kern River oil.

“In a letter to the California Oil World published Aug. 24, 1911, Jonathan Elwood tells the story of the discovery in these words: ‘James Munroe Elwood and I, Jonathan Elwood, alone and without the assistance of anyone, discovered oil on the north bank of Kern River, 7 miles [11 km] northeast of Bakersfi eld on Thomas A. Means’ farm. This was in May 1899. We made the discovery with a hand auger, under the edge of a cliff, close to the river.

‘We then went up onto the bluff and commenced a shaft, and at the depth of 43 ft [13 m] we again struck the oil sand. We were then obliged to get timber and curb as we went down, as the oil sand was too soft to stand up. We were obliged to put in an air blast to furnish fresh air to the man below on account of the strong odor of gas. At a depth of 75 ft [23 m] there was so much oil and gas that we concluded we had better get a steam rig. We got this and went down 343 ft [104 m],’” the history stated.

“The first oil taken away was when I took four whiskey barrels of it to Kern City and shipped it to Millwood for skid grease, getting $1 a barrel net,” he said.

The Kern River Oil Field has one large producing horizon (Kern River) and two smaller formations, the Vedder and Jewett, discovered in 1981 and 1985, respectively. The Kern River Formation is of Pliocene-Pleistocene age and lies at depths between 122 m and 400 m (400 ft and 1,312 ft). The Vedder is at a depth of 1,433 m (4,700 ft) in the Oligocene, and the Jewett is at 1,287 m (4,220 ft).

Technology extends field’s life
A lot of technology, including steamfl ooding, cogeneration, the reclamation and reuse of produced water, and 3-D visualization were used to meet the challenges of producing heavy crude oil with a goal of extracting more than 80% of the crude oil contained in the fi eld, Texaco said.

The Kern River Oil Field consists of 10,750 acres in an area north-northeast of Bakersfi eld, Calif. In the early to mid-1960s hot water injection and steamfl ooding revitalized the Kern River Field.

Chevron has a 99%-owned and operated interest in leases covering most of the Kern River Oil Field. With 86% of the company’s crude oil production in California considered heavy oil (typically with lower than 22°API gravity), thermal recovery techniques utilizing steam are applied to increase oil recovery.

“The company’s industry-leading expertise in steamflood operations has resulted in more than a 60% crude oil recovery rate at the Kern River Oil Field. Chevron continues to leverage leading-edge heat management capabilities in the recovery of these hydrocarbons, with emphasis on improved energy effi ciency through new technology and processes,” the company stated in its 2014 annual report supplement.

In 2014 the company drilled 779 new wells, and development programs included plans for drilling 520 more wells in 2015. These programs have helped reverse the decline rate on company-operated properties from 7% in 2010 to essentially flat in 2014.

Water, oil do mix
For every barrel of oil produced in the Kern River Oil Field, about 10 bbl of water are produced. The field produces about 760,000 bbl/d of water. About half of that amount flows through a 14-km (8.5-mile) pipeline from a water processing facility to Bakersfi eld’s Cawelo Water District. Given the recent drought in California, the recycled water has been a blessing to farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

In 1994, Texaco (now Chevron) entered into a contract with the Cawelo Water District to provide excess produced water to Cawelo for irrigation purposes. The water that Chevron provides to Cawelo for agricultural purposes benefits about 90 farmers and is used primarily with permanent crops such as citrus fruits, nuts and grapes, according to a Chevron spokesperson.

After being separated from oil by gravity separation, produced water runs through depurators, which remove fine particulates and oil, and walnut-shell media-based filters to clean remaining residual oil before traveling through an underground pipeline to a surface polishing pond.

From the pond, the processed water proceeds into Cawelo’s blending reservoir, known as “Reservoir B,” where Chevron’s water mixes with freshwater and processed water from other sources, including the Valley Water Management Co. The newly blended water is then sent through Cawelo’s canal system, where additional freshwater is added and farmers are then able to draw water for irrigation.