Momentum is building in the push to make Kern nationally competitive in carbon management, the emerging field of trying to slow climate change by removing or reducing greenhouse gases.
The most ambitious project, now wrapping up initial design work and heading into permitting early next year, could put the state's first carbon capture and sequestration project at the Elk Hills Power Plant in western Kern.
Alternative fuels projects underway locally are also part of the county's carbon-management portfolio, and agricultural land in the region could play a role as well. There's also hope the county's renewable energy portfolio will help it land investments in hydrogen fuels.
Lorelei Oviatt, the county planner spearheading the effort, sees the carbon-management industry as being in its infancy, much as renewable energy was when Kern embraced that field and became a leader in the state through a focus on permitting efficiency.
Since the county Board of Supervisors voted early this year to add the field to its list of industries worthy of subsidy supports, Oviatt has begun working to understand environmental impacts of such work and ways of possibly cushioning them.
Oviatt sees a wealth of opportunities, based on a number of local strengths — a workforce well-suited to industrial labor, chemical safety expertise and proximity to renewable energy in the form of eastern Kern's solar and wind farms. Another advantage is Kern's inventory of open land.
"When it's time to build it, are you building it in San Jose? Are you building it in Santa Monica? No," she said.
But Oviatt has also identified local competitive disadvantages. Technologies dependent on ample water access probably won't work locally, she noted, and Kern's biggest competitor, Texas, doesn't have to deal with an expensive state environmental review process that takes a year and a half.
Having become somewhat disillusioned by solar projects that have yielded little revenue for county government and only modest employment opportunities, she said her goal is not simply to prioritize large investments. Rather, it is to attract good-paying jobs and tax income to help make up for economic and financial losses expected to result locally from Gov. Gavin Newsom's anti-oil policies.
Because of carbon management's environmental promise, it's possible Sacramento's goal of making California "carbon neutral" by 2045 may yet be of some benefit to Kern.
A report released in January by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory concluded the state can achieve that goal by burying or offsetting 125 megatons per year of carbon dioxide. It also pointed to a significant role for Kern.
In addition to outlining land management practices and waste material processing, Livermore recognized local oil formations' vast geologic capacity for permanently storing carbon dioxide.
One such project, California Resource Corp.'s "CalCapture" initiative, is scheduled for a county environmental review in the first quarter of next year. The company hopes to see it operational by mid-decade.
The project is not intended to vacuum CO2 out of the atmosphere — an expensive and energy-intensive process that may eventually figure into the local economy. Rather, CalCapture would remove a large share of the compound from the emissions stream of CRC's 550-megawatt Elk Hills Power Plant in the Tupman area.
Early estimates were that the project, one of nine to receive recent financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy, would process 83 percent of the emissions from the plant's chimneylike flue. Of that, 90 percent of the CO2 would be captured, trapped deep underground, and be used to displace oil and extend the life of the prolific Elk Hills Oil Field.
CRC said by email CalCapture is expected to generate nearly 3,500 jobs statewide and more than $200 million in taxes during its three-year construction period, plus 150 permanent jobs and $200 million in taxes over 20 years.
"We are excited to advance this pioneering project that will make Kern County and our state a leader in CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) technology," the company said.
Expanding on what carbon management might ultimately mean for the county, Oviatt noted that farmland can be used to manage carbon, too. That may involve transitioning to different crops, she said, or working with agricultural properties that might have to be taken out of production because of upcoming groundwater restrictions.
Local production of alternative fuels can be considered carbon management, too, and that's already happening, with more to come.
At least two local refineries — Kern Oil & Refining Co. and Crimson Renewable Energy LLC — produce renewable diesel in significant quantities. Crimson makes a biodiesel that can be stored in conventional fuel tanks and releases 80 percent less carbon.
Also, this year it was announced a Torrance-based company had bought the former, 67,000-barrel-per-day refinery on Rosedale Highway. It said it plans to spend $365 million reopening the plant by early 2022 with about 100 employees producing 10,000 barrels per day of biodiesel from cooking oil. Later, it wants the refinery to make the product from a ground-cover plant called camelina.
Hydrogen energy is another aspect of carbon management that Oviatt said might hold promise locally.
It's a complex technology that can take many forms, she said, with one important requirement that the energy involved come from renewable energy, which Kern makes a lot of.
One advantage Kern has in that regard is a new partnership between Bakersfield College and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which Oviatt said is on the very cutting edge of carbon management.
That partnership, she said, represents an "absolute new future for us."
"To have them here gives us national and international exposure," she said.