Business

Saturday, Sep 01 2012 08:00 PM

The sound and the fury: Gas flare wears on Shafter-area residents

  1. 1 of 7

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    A gas flare towers over a two-sided fence at an oil field north of Shafter on Merced Avenue on Tuesday night.

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  2. 2 of 7

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    A gas flare towers over a two-sided fence at an oil field north of Shafter on Merced Avenue on Tuesday night.

    click to expand click to collapse
  3. 3 of 7

    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    A gas flare towers over a two-sided fence at an oil field north of Shafter on Merced Avenue on Tuesday night.

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  4. 4 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Walt Desatoff lives across the street from a gas flare near Shafter. He has documented and filed complaints about the noise.

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  5. 5 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Walt Desatoff watches the gas flare burn in an oilfield across the street from his home in Shafter.

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  6. 6 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The gas flare in this oilfield is seen and heard by Walt Desatoff who lives across the street. He is unhappy with the constant noise that it makes.

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  7. 7 of 7

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Walt Desatoff stands in his front yard in Shafter and can see and hear the gas flare constantly, (lower left), across the street from him in this oilfield.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Walt Desatoff tries to keep a good attitude about the 50-foot-high natural gas flare that roars day and night across the street from his home north of Shafter.

His family owns stock in the oil company that operates the flare, after all, and he accepts its monthly royalty checks for the use of his mineral rights.

Related Info

Watch Walt Desatoff take about the flare and hear the noise it makes in a video at bakersfield.com.

But Desatoff drew the line earlier this summer when the incessant noise -- much like the sound of a jet engine -- forced him to cancel family barbecues and shut windows despite the summer heat.

"I understand it's part of business," he said. "It's just unfortunate that I live here."

His neighbor, Merrill Lehman, feels much the same way.

"We can't sleep at night. It rattles our windows," he said.

Annoying though it may be, the flare appears to be another unfortunate consequence of living in a rural area that happens to be situated atop a rich oil reservoir.

Adding to the frustration, local, regional and state officials are pointing fingers as to which agency is responsible for enforcing or imposing noise limits at the site.

A call for patience

Gas flaring has occurred in that area near Merced and Mannel avenues intermittently since oil drilling began there in the mid-1990s. But the flaring is noticeably stronger lately, and the companies involved say little can be done about it.

Vintage Petroleum LLC usually sells the gas that's feeding the flare to Chevron Corp., which in turn pipes it to its Kern River oil field to generate steam for production of heavy oil.

But Chevron stopped accepting the gas earlier this summer so it could perform routine maintenance on its gas pipeline. A company spokeswoman said Chevron hopes to finish the work this week.

Vintage, the Bakersfield subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., has tried to minimize disruption caused by the flare. The company recently built a sound wall around the flame, but neighbors say it barely helped. Vintage is working to move the flare to the south, away from Desatoff's and Lehman's Merced Avenue homes.

"Vintage is appreciative of our neighbors' patience while we are working on a safe solution," spokeswoman Susie Geiger wrote in an email.

Going with the territory

The situation has arisen at a time of growing tensions between the local agricultural community and oil producers. At least two lawsuits have been filed recently challenging the approval of oil operations on Kern farmland. Separately, a bill was proposed in Sacramento to make mineral rights holders provide more notice before entering the property of farmers and other surface rights owners.

Flares are not uncommon in oil fields, and they serve different purposes. When an oil well is being tested, for example, the natural gas that comes up as part of the process may be flared off in order to eliminate the danger of an accidental ignition.

When gas comes out of an oil well located far from a pipeline, the preferred practice is to reinject it underground. That requires a special permit, however, in addition to construction of an injection well.

Flares are considered far safer than simply venting the gas into the atmosphere. Beyond presenting an ignition hazard, releasing the gas would emit pollution much worse than a flare creates.

Neighbors say the Vintage flare has burned almost constantly since July 6, even as its intensity has fluctuated, with the most noise coming at night.

The company says the flare has been burning brightly nonstop only since early August.

Flaring rules

Records maintained by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District show that flaring necessitated by repair and maintenance work took place regularly at that oil field between July 2011 and June 2012.

The longest of these flaring events stretched over 13 and a half days in February, and the flaring never exceeded the maximum allowable volume of 3 million cubic feet per day, according to district records.

In each case, records state, the frequency and volume of gas coming out of the field was insufficient to justify the cost of installing additional equipment to capture the gas.

An independent analysis done in June found that the gas being flared at the site was 85 percent methane, about 6 percent ethane and less than 4 percent propane; other chemical components of the gas were found to be less than 2 percent.

The air district has detailed rules for what emissions such flares may produce. These rules assign maximum allowable quantities of particulate matter, mono-nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and sulfur.

The district further stipulates that, in the event of a planned shutdown by the purchaser, gas production must be "curtailed to the extent possible without hampering oil production."

A spokeswoman for the air district, Jaime Holt, confirmed that it has received complaints about Vintage's flare but that the agency has every indication that the situation is consistent with the company's permits.

"We have gone out and investigated what's going on and they're operating within the limits of their permits and the limits of our rule," Holt said.

No noise limits?

As for the noise generated by the flaring, county environmental health and code enforcement officials said that is outside the jurisdiction of local authorities. They said regulation of noise from oil fields is entirely up to the primary regulator of California's oil industry, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

A spokesman for DOGGR, however, indicated that the division neither issues permits for flares nor tracks them. He said the agency has referred complaints about the flare to county and air district officials.

Holt at the air district said the agency does not regulate noise from gas flares.

Desatoff, the neighbor living across Merced Avenue from the flame, said he is contemplating recording the flare's sound and playing it outside the homes of Oxy executives. "But that's in my angry, bitter moments," he said.

Other times he jokes about it, calling it his "porch light." Occasionally, though, it strikes him as the constant dripping of water used in water torture.

"It takes its toll on your piece of mind," he said.

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