The steak prepared for breakfast at Wednesday morning's Kern County Energy Summit served as an apt metaphor for the 13th annual event in downtown Bakersfield.

Not only did it speak to good times ahead as speaker after speaker pointed to business opportunities facing the county's increasingly diverse energy industry, but as red meat it also epitomized some of the political themes.

Optimism abounded in presentations about how renewable energy developers, leveraging California's low-carbon regulatory mandates, expect to move forward with new solar-power installations and energy storage projects. Even petroleum producers and geologists spoke hopefully about carbon sequestration and reducing the state's reliance on imported oil.

There was also a fair amount of political discussion as speakers highlighted the political divide between those who support energy development and outsiders skeptical that local energy development can be done responsibly.

ENERGY DIVIDE

Lorelei Oviatt opened both discussions, literally and figuratively. The director of Kern's Planning and Natural Resources Department emphasized the county's statewide leadership in permitting conventional and renewable energy projects, from biogas and air quality-neutral oil drilling to photovoltaic solar and wind farms.

Oviatt derided Sacramento's perception that Kern is "stuck in the past" with its resistance to calls for ending oil production. She likened the state's stated goal of phasing out California petroleum production to urging the county "over the cliff … into economic instability."

Bakersfield oil executive Trem Smith, head of Berry Petroleum Co. LLC, later lent a measure of support with his comment that California's drive to reduce its own oil supply, without first eliminating demand, amounts to choosing imported oil over domestic and requiring that oil be brought by ship, which he called the riskiest way to move petroleum.

A smarter approach, he said, would be to promote in-state production and gradually wean California off its use of oil produced in politically unstable countries with lesser workplace standards.

"It's a huge opportunity for the state," he said, "and we'd like to be part of it."

RENEWABLE OPPORTUNITIES

As has long been the pattern at the summits hosted yearly by the Kern Economic Development Corp., promotion of the oil industry combined seamlessly with celebration of renewable energy.

Representatives of several companies involved in solar power and energy storage touted the county's unrivaled potential in terms of energy infrastructure and local talent, as well as consistent and transparent regulation.

More than in years past, speakers encouraged by California's low-carbon energy policies also pointed out opportunities related to converting Central Valley agricultural waste into methane as a transportation fuel, turning carbon dioxide into marketable products — even burying the gas on-site at local oil fields.

Geologist Steve Bohlen, a former top oil regulator in California who now runs Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Energy and Homeland Security program, said the southern valley has the potential to innovate its way to becoming the next Silicon Valley.

He spoke out against Sacramento's push to phase out petroleum, saying oil and gas will be necessary in California for decades to come.

Bohlen listed a number of technologies that could become whole new industries locally, including hydrogen production from ag waste and carbon sequestration.

"We think there is a path ahead for this," he said.

POLITICAL LOGJAM

Keynote speaker Ron Brownstein, a prominent political journalist twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, closed the event with a call for dialogue and comprise that, judging by the reactions of a few in the audience, wasn't unanimously welcomed.

Brownstein asserted that the nation's closely and deeply divided politics have resulted in successive administrations wiping away the accomplishments of the last. What's sorely lacking, he said, is any sincere attempt to work with the opposition party on finding common ground.

He referred to an "energy divide" as being just another unfortunate outgrowth of this situation.

While President Donald Trump has done much to promote energy production and downplay climate change, Brownstein said, five Democratic candidates for the presidency have pledged that, if successful in next year's election, they will ban the contentious oilfield practice known as hydraulic fracturing.

Bemoaning the lost art of compromise, Brownstein said society appears headed toward its most divided point since the '60s.

"The only question," he said, "is whether it's the 1960s or the 1860s."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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