Whether you call them reliability specialists or production operators, these Aera employees play a vital role in our business success.
Each workday, Ricky Cervantes dons protective clothing and steel-toed boots and drives 40 miles from his home in Greenfield to Aera Energy’s San Ardo oilfield.
There, at 6 a.m., he begins a 12-hour shift as a reliability specialist at the site’s oil-treating facility.
His responsibilities? Making sure the oil and water that come in from the field are properly separated and the oil is dehydrated for sales. Ensuring tanks, vessels and equipment function cleanly and safely so fellow employees and contractors can work on and around them. Seeing that his unit meets or exceeds all environmental laws and regulations.
Cervantes is one of Aera’s 226 reliability specialists, also known at some Aera fields as production operators. They handle the day-to-day operations of Aera’s oilfields, keeping critical equipment — from pumping units and pipelines to tanks and vessels – operating safely and efficiently.
They’re instrumental in every phase of production, from pumping oil and gas out of the earth to the final step of transferring that yield to downstream pipeline operations.
“They are our boots on the ground, the backbone of our operations,” says Evan Morones, a process supervisor who oversees 19 reliability specialists at Aera’s San Ardo field. “Their input helps Aera make business decisions, and they’re a vital part of generating revenue that allows Aera to provide revenue to the communities where we operate.”
Same role, different backgrounds
Some 80 miles southeast of San Ardo, at Aera’s Belridge field, 160 employees carry the title of reliability specialist, the most of any Aera location.
“They are the heartbeat of the production operation, working around the clock to ensure everyone goes home alive and well,” says John O’Connor, Belridge’s manager of operations.
Among them is Wendy Mead. Like Cervantes, she’s responsible for ensuring dehydration plant and water-disposal processes are safe and efficient.
“I keep an eye on the vessels that process oil at the plant, making sure all levels, pressure, temperatures, chemicals and equipment are performing optimally,” Mead says. “I’m proud we do this safely and in an environmentally sound manner.”
Raised in a family of oilfield workers, Mead became one of the first female roustabouts, or oilfield laborers, in Kern County. She didn’t come to Aera until 2008, after she had raised her four children. Today, she is one of 19 women at Area who hold reliability specialist/production operator positions.
“The culture in the oilfield has been changing for 30 years,” Mead says. “At Aera, we often operate over and above what California regulates us to do. I love working for a company that’s aligned with great safety, environmental and community values.”
Daniel Almaraz also works as a reliability specialist at Aera’s Belridge field. He spent 13 years as an oilfield electrician for other oil-related companies before joining Aera in 2017 as a maintenance electrician.
Earlier this year, he transferred to Aera’s Diatomite Thermal Recovery unit, where he’s responsible for keeping hundreds of wells and pumping units in top condition.
His hands-on field experience also has allowed him to make his voice heard in the public arena. Both Almaraz and Mead are Aera Ambassadors, trained to be effective spokesperson for the oil and gas industry.
“Aera has given me the opportunity to be heard in ways I’d never been able to before,” says Almaraz. “I’ve attended public hearings and met state legislators. I’ve told them about the solar facility Aera will be building at Belridge, how we’ll use renewables to produce oil to reduce emission and make our footprint greener.”
Way beyond a roustabout
At Aera, the role of these hands-on operators has evolved beyond its roustabout roots.
With most of their time spent outdoors, all wear personal protective clothing, including fire-retardant outerwear, safety glasses, hard hats and impact gloves, even sunscreen. They also leverage innovative technology, such as iPads and smartphones, as much, if not more, than wrenches and hammers.
Troubleshooting problems, sometimes involving hard-to-see areas in tanks, vessels and below ground, requires problem-solving skills, discipline and a mind that’s open to ideas and collaboration.
“You need somebody who’s very safety conscious, who can think ahead to make sure all procedures are done right,” Cervantes says. “It should be someone who is proud of the work they do.”
Continuous training is essential. For example, all operators are instructed in emergency response exposure and reduction and accident prevention. They undergo Mandatory Environmental Safety Training, commonly known as MEST. The instruction covers environmental and safety policies and procedures associated with oil production and processes. MEST trains them in endangered species and habitat protection, spill control and prevention, hazard recognition and mitigation, and much more.
Moreover, Aera’s hands-on operators are well aware of Title V, greenhouse gas, AB 1960 and other important California and federal laws that regulate oil and gas operations.
“Every day, I’m learning,” says Vicky Day, a production operator at Aera’s North Midway Sunset field near Taft.
Day spent 21 years working for Vons, then another seven with a plumbing company before she was hired by Aera in 2012. Now Day is the eyes and ears of the field, daily surveying pipelines, pumping units and other infrastructure to ensure a safe, efficient operation for her teammates and contractors.
On the front line
Like Almaraz and Mead, Day sees her Aera role as part of a bigger picture.
“We’re on the front line of making lives easier,” Day says. “Look around at all the products that oil makes. It’s an honor to know it started with me.”
For Cervantes, the job has made its biggest impact on home and family. The son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up working in the spinach fields, wineries and produce coolers of Monterey County. Before Aera hired him in 2017, he had been working 57 hours a week in various oilfield jobs to provide for his family. That dropped to 40-hour weeks when he joined Aera.
Becoming an Aera employee allowed him to become the sole head of his household, making it possible for his wife to stay home and care for their baby daughter, born last October. Further, says Cervantes, it helped him become a homeowner at age 24.
“Getting this job was the biggest blessing of my life,” he says. “The opportunities it’s provided have been priceless.”