RIO VISTA (KPIX) — Billed as a cleaner alternative to coal by a diverse coalition that includes Big Oil and the Sierra Club, natural gas is suddenly a hot topic. Even President Barack Obama has mentioned natural gas as one of the United States’ bets options for new energy sources.
The focus on natural gas production is good news for Kevin Graham, who runs a big drilling outfit in Rio Vista known as Paul Graham Drilling.
“Gas has been very important to us. I live and breathe natural gas but, in my opinion, it’s the way of the future,” said Graham.
The future, even if it’s bright, won’t likely outshine the Rio Vista Gas Field’s epic history. Over the past 65 years, more than three and a half trillion cubic feet of natural gas — billions of dollars worth — has been pulled from wells drilled deep into the hills and low-lying islands that surround the Delta town on the Sacramento River.
“At one time, Rio Vista had the largest natural gas field on the Western Coast of the United States,” said Phil Pezzaglia, curator of the Rio Vista museum. “I wouldn’t say it’s been documented, but it’s been written down several times that, per population, Rio Vista had more millionaires than Los Angeles back in the 1940s and fifties.”
With all that money came jobs — lots of jobs. But locals didn’t like to talk about the inevitable: gas fields eventually give out.
Karla Graham leases equipment to the gas fields. She said business has been sliding for 20 years.
“It’s probably, maybe a tenth of what it was. It’s been that much of a decline,” said Graham.
This year, a company called Vintage Production, owned by Occidental Petroleum, took over the Rio Vista field. Vintage won’t say yet whether they plan to increase production but Richard Emigh, on whose land the very first gas well in the area was drilled, offered his advice:
“The best place to drill for gas is in a gas field,” said Emigh.
The Rio Vista City Hall was built when the gas royalty checks had a lot more zeros on them. Mayor Jan Vick said those days may never come back.
“It would be wonderful if they decided to drill and we got a whole bunch more royalties,” said Vick. “I think the city’s learned that that’s something that really fluctuates and we can’t consider it a major part of our income.”
On the Montezuma Hills above town, the construction of hundreds of sleek wind turbines has transformed the look of the landscape, but not yet the employment picture. There are lots of construction workers in town, but no one who spoke to KPIX expects many jobs will be left behind when the windmills have all been built.
That leaves folks in the Delta hoping this dawn of wind power isn’t a sunset for the Rio Vista Gas Field.
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