Scenic San Joaquin trys to take smog out of the picture

The southern tip of California's bountiful San Joaquin Valley nudges into Kern County before the Valley floor runs abruptly into mountains -- to the east, west, and south.

Crops thrive in Kern County; the farms are both enormous and profitable.

But Kern County holds another source of wealth: oil. If the well pumps and refineries are not enough indication that Kern County is oil Country, look to the sky. The mountains are likely to be obscured by a dense brown haze: smog.

With oil production being stepped up in Kern County, particularly after President Carter lifted price controls on heavy oil last June, air pollution has become serious. The pollution is, at the least, obnoxious to humans, and damaging to crops.

But the oil companies whose activities are the chief source of the air pollution are resisting costly cleanup steps urged by state officials.

Kern is the only country in California where air quality has deteriorated over the last decade, according to the state Air Resources Board (ARB).

"It's pretty darn polluted," says ARB member Marjorie Evans. "It has the southern California look. If we don't deal with it promptly and correctly it's going to get much worse."

The major polluters are steam generators that oil companies use to heat the thick beds of oil below ground. Once heated, the heavy crude is more easily brought to the surface. The steam generators burn heavy grades of oil with a high nitrogen content.

Since 1973, the number of steam generators operating in Kern County has increased by 2 1/2 times (the total now is 686), and pollutants emitted from those generators have increased 80 percent in the same period.

Two troublesome pollutants -- oxides of nitrogen and oxides of sulfur -- are emitted by the steam generators. These plants produce some 20 percent of all the nitrous oxide emissions in the San Joaquin Valley and contribute to the type of murky photochemical smog that is familiar to anyone from Los Angeles.

The sulfur oxide, part solid and part haze, builds up in Kern County to some of the highest concentrations in the country. At times it is more severe than levels measured in the industrialized Ohio River Valley.

But the oil companies, eager to exploit the oil in the Kern County reservoirs , which may contain up to 20 billion barrels of crude, claim that proposed ARB regulations to reduce pollution are too costly and difficult to implement, involve unreliable technology, and would drastically reduce production. If the proposals are adopted, they claim, oil production might be cut by 40 percent.

The ARB disagrees. The proposed amendments to Kern County Air Pollution Control District regulations, ARB spokesman William Sessa says, are amply flexible and unusually liberal.

The ARB is recommending that for every pound of new nitrogen oxide emitted by an oil company 1.2 pounds of pollutants from existing sources must be eliminated. This "tradeoff" plan would, thus, actually reduce the air pollution in the county.

But many companies are unhappy because the plan gives an advantage to firms that already own generators and can improve their equipment to comply with the regulation and build new steam plants. Small companies or large ones just getting started in Kern County must negotiate with others for tradeoff rights. The ARB originally considered a plan that would make only pre-1976 generators available for the tradeoff, but the date may be moved to 1979.

For now, says William Brommelsiek, an environmental engineer with Chevron USA , "there are not enough pre-1976 sources to offset new ones."

But Mr. Sessa of the ARB says enough sources exist, that oil companies are squabbling because the rules give some companies an advantage, and that refining and transportation capabilities in Kern County could not handle sizable jumps in production even if the ARB backed off.

Also at issue is the capability of the technology which the ARB would like the oil companies to employ on steam generators. The oil companies claim the equipment is not reliable enough.

"I'm not convinced. The technology needs development," says Larry Zestar, and engineer with Chevron Research Company. "To date, the reductions, overall, are not that significant."

But Frank Digenova, and ARB specialist in combustion-generated pollution, says, "The control technology is developing rapidly. Those emissions can be controlled today."

Two members of the ARB will meet with oil company representatives at Bakersfield in early March to evaluate proposed amendments. While concerned with oil company complaints, they are likely to take into consideration a staff estimate that just $1.50 to $2 of each barrel of oil is needed to pay for pollution controls. Today, heavy crude is being sold for up to $30 a barrel.

Beyond health questions for county citizens, the ARB is concerned with the effects on agriculture. Studies conducted by the University of California have shown that the cotton crop, Kern County's chief agricultural product, may lose 15 percent of its yield due to oxidants from nitrous oxide.

Even with stiff controls and industry compliance, says Mr. Sessa of the ARB, another 10 years may pass before Kern County air is improved enough that the mountains come back into view.

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