It wouldn't be a Kern County Energy Summit without commentaries on the downsides of government regulation. But Wednesday morning's annual industry gathering also offered something for those who see the cup as half full.
The county's top planning official kicked things off on a positive note by leading the audience in an ovation for Kern's energy industry. And while the optimism lasted for a few minutes longer as she touted the area's rich natural resources, things soon turned sour as she launched into her ironically titled presentation about "California dreaming."
Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Director Lorelei Oviatt denounced Sacramento's increasingly anti-oil policies, noting that her department's industry-friendly approach has led to the state's most environmentally protective regulations in California. No other industry in the San Joaquin Valley, she said, has contributed as much money toward emission reduction projects.
Then she made one of the boldest pitches of the day. To help solve the Golden State's housing crisis, other counties should do as she did: put together a broad, project-level environmental review that turns permitting into a ministerial process that offers a straightforward path to approval.
"We don't cut corners," she said. "What we do is find a way through regulatory roadblocks, particularly at the state level."
Held just one day after the midterm elections, the summit was bound to see politics surface. Sure enough, a Chevron representative asked a panel of government officials how the state's next governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, was likely to address oil regulation in view of his public statements critical of the industry.
All three panelists said it was too early to tell how Newsom's policies might differ from those of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has accommodated the industry more than many other Democrats would have liked.
Going a step further, the local deputy of the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, Cameron Campbell, said he doesn't foresee any drastic changes, adding that "not one person has all the power."
A presentation by two companies partnering on a novel solar project in western Kern was one of the meeting's bright spots. Representatives of Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC and GlassPoint Solar, headquartered in Fremont, reminded attendees of the nation's largest solar power-enabled oil production project.
The Belridge Solar Project, expected to break ground next year, promises to generate 850 megawatts of thermal energy and 26.5 megawatts of electrical power for the benefit of Aera's oil production. The centerpiece will be curved mirrors, located inside greenhouse-type structures, focusing sunlight on water-filled pipes. The resulting steam is pumped deep into oil wells for the sake of making oil less viscous and therefore easier to produce.
There was also an uplifting, if at times troubling, panel discussion about the challenges and rewards of persuading local girls to consider a career in engineering — a promising prospect for an industry that often struggles to attract talent.
Four Kern County women working in oil or science education told of their experiences breaking into what has long been a male-dominated field.
Coaxed by Cheryl Scott, executive director of the Kern Economic Development Foundation, whose sister organization organized the summit, the women shared their personal "a-ha" career moments. For Melissa Morse, Central Valley operations area leader for oil producer California Resources Corp., the moment arrived with her first paycheck.
She recalled hearing at one point the company's representation of women had apparently increased from 17 percent to 20 percent. "We weren't sure if it was progress or just rounding got us there," she said.
Another panelist, Chevron project engineer Dulce Hernandez, told how she tries to instill scientific curiosity in her two young daughters by encouraging them to carry out informal experiments at home and pushing them to stick with difficult situations.
Panelist Kathleen Madden, Cal State Bakersfield's dean of the School of Natural Science, Mathematics and Engineering, cited progress from the lean years of her youth but said much work remains to be done if women are to gain parity with men in science.
"It's going to be something we have to concentrate on for many decades," she said.