A massive oil spill even bigger than the Plains All American Pipeline disaster off Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara County in 2015 has occurred in Kern County, as first reported by Ted Goldberg at KQED. The latest disaster has spilled more than 798,000 gallons of combined oil and wastewater into the surrounding area over the past couple of months.
The spill occurred about 3.5 miles from the town of McKittrick and about 6 miles from the nearest farm. The incident is about 35 miles west of Bakersfield, the historic center of California’s oil industry for over 100 years and also the heart of Southern San Joaquin Valley agribusiness operations, including those owned by Linda and Stewart Resnick, the owners of the Wonderful Company.
Chevron first reported the spill to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on June 12. It took place in the Cymric Oil Field, where Chevron uses steam injection, an extreme oil-extraction technique.
The report said the “release is due to unknown causes and the material seeped from the ground into an intermittent unnamed dry streambed, no waterways were impacted, the release is stopped, the material is naturally contained in a canyon, there is no impact to wildlife, a contractor will handle cleanup with Chevron oversight once Chevrondetermines the cause of the seep.”
The agency responsible for regulating the fossil fuel industry in California, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), “adopted weaker restrictions on the practice earlier this year, making these operations even more dangerous,” according to a statement from the Last Chance Coalition.
On last Friday, Jason Marshall, the acting oil and gas supervisor at DOGGR, ordered Chevron to immediately “take all measures” to the stop the flow and “prevent any new surface expressions” near the oil well site.
This latest disaster takes place in a state where Big Oil and Big Gas have captured the regulators from top to bottom. The oil industry is the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the trade association for the oil industry in California and other Western states, is the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization.
Representatives of groups in the Last Chance Coalition responded to the latest oil industry disaster in California with their perspectives on the oil spill.
“This toxic spill proves that the stakes are too high to trust DOGGR and other regulatory agencies to protect communities,” said Juan Flores, a Kern County community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “The fact that these regulators consistently put industry interests over health and safety is unacceptable. Enforcement of existing regulations and enactment of basic protections like health and safety zones are long overdue.”
In 2018 at the request of Chevron and other oil companies, state regulators under the helm of Governor Jerry Brown and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Donald Trump approved an exemption that removed protections from an aquifer in the Cymric Oil Field, according to the coalition.
“Those agencies assured the public that allowing injection would not endanger nearby groundwater because the fluids would not migrate. This spill brings into question the assumptions behind that decision,” the coalition said.
Linda Hutchins-Knowles, California Senior Organizer for Mothers Out Front, said, “We have lost all faith in the ability of DOGGR to do its job of protecting Californians, and we call on the Governor to completely reform this corporate-captured agency. Regulators should not be allowed to own stock in the very industry they’re supposed to regulate. As California faces serious water scarcity, we need increased protections for our aquifers, not weakened rules.”
“Because much of California’s remaining oil is heavy or otherwise hard to access, extreme-extraction techniques like steam injection and fracking are increasingly widespread. These practices are incredibly carbon-intensive — making California’s oil even more climate-damaging — and pose a serious contamination risk to nearby air and water sources,” the coalition stated.
News of spill follows firing of DOGGR head for doubling fracking permits
The news of the spill came just hours after Governor Newsom’s office fired DOGGR head Ken Harris for doubling the fracking permits issued during his time as governor — without his knowledge, according to Newsom – and reports of conflicts of interest among senior officials, as documented in my reporting on a groundbreaking report by Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance.
From January 1 to June 3 of 2018, the State’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) approved 2,365 new oil and gas well permits and 191 fracking permits, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance.
The data shows that this year regulators have increased the number of permits granted for drilling new wells by 35.3%, well reworks by 28.3%, and fracking by 103.2%, as compared to the permitting rate during the final year of the Brown administration in 2018.
Even more alarming, of the 2,365 well permits issued, 1064 or 45% of them benefitted oil companies invested in by DOGGR officials, the groups reported.
The news of the spill also came just as Governor Gavin Newsom appointed a former Exxon/Mobil and Northrup Grumman employee to the South Coast Air Quality Management Board.
Despite the enormous threat to human health, water and the environment, California — constantly portrayed as the nation’s “green leader” by state officials and media — continues to be one of the nation’s top oil-producing states and its crude oil is among the dirtiest.
The Last Chance Alliance, including over 500 public-interest groups, is calling on Governor Gavin Newsom “to stop permitting for fossil fuel projects and commit to a just transition plan to phase out the state’s existing fossil fuel extraction, starting with wells within 2,500 feet of homes and schools.”
“Doubling down on new drilling is incompatible with climate leadership, and for the first time we’re seeing a California governor recognize and begin to act on this reality,” opined Kelly Trout, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International. “Acknowledging the need to ‘transition away from oil and gas extraction’ is huge because it resets expectations. State agencies should be focused on how to rapidly and justly wind down oil and gas extraction, not on easing the way for Chevron and other polluters to drill us further towards disaster.”
“Clean air, fresh water, and safe housing are fundamental human rights, which are under constant threat from the unrelenting climate crisis and reckless fossil fuel extraction,” said Matt Nelson, Executive Director, Presente.org. “Families across California deserve to live in safe communities, free from climate devastation, harmful fossil fuel companies, and corrupt government agencies. We deserve a state government that is not afraid to protect our climate and all the people. Holding DOGGR accountable is a step on a path toward the California leadership we want and need.”
“We’re incredibly grateful to the governor for taking this information seriously and acting quickly. However, in its current structure, DOGGR has never demonstrated an ability to put public health and safety first and it needs greater reform than just a new leader,” said Gladys Limon, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “Californians also need immediate action to remediate the harms that have been caused in communities across the state, starting with the implementation of a 2,500 ft. health and safety buffer.”
DOGGR calls spill a ‘surface expression’ of oil and water
The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) responded to the big oil spill in a statement, saying it “continues to address a large oil release known as a ‘surface expression’ of oil and water in a dry streambed in the Cymric oil field located in Kern County.”
“This kind of discharge can occur when steam injected under pressure to produce oil breaks through natural geologic barriers to the surface. The seepage began on May 10 and ceased that same day,” the agency wrote.
“It was reported to DOGGR, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. The flow reactivated a second time on June 8, flowing intermittently for five days. On June 23, the seep started again. Numerous steps were taken to stop the discharge and it was eventually contained. In all, the releases totaled approximately 19,000 barrels (798,000 gallons) of a mixture of about one-third oil and two-thirds water,” according to a DOGGR statement.
The flow of oil and water has ceased, confirmed on July 12 by DOGGR officials. DOGGR field engineers are conducting regulator site inspections and remain on call in the nearby area.
“The seepages were contained by an earthen dam,” the agency continued. “A combination of shutting in nearby injection wells and activating idled production wells to ease pressure on the formation appeared to help stem the flow. Chevron deployed loud air cannons to keep wildlife away.”
“Vacuum trucks are removing the pooled oil and water. Preparation to remove contaminated soil from the site is underway. A licensed civil engineer will be surveying the site to determine when it will be safe to bring in the crews and equipment necessary to do the job,” DOGGR stated.
DOGGR also reported that “there are no reported injuries or threats to drinking water or to waters of current or future beneficial use at this time.”
Annie Leonard, Executive Director at Greenpeace USA, said the Chevron spill “clearly shows that California needs stronger climate leadership from the Governor. Yet, instead of steering the state in the right direction, Governor Newsom has approved oil and gas permits at double the rate as Governor Brown before him.”
“Oil and gas infrastructure will never be free from spills and leaks—or from spewing climate pollution. We face a growing public health crisis and climate emergency stoked by rampant oil and gas development. It’s time for a reckoning. Governor Newsom, it’s time to stop the expansion of fossil fuels in California,” concluded Leonard.
Background: Big Oil regulatory capture from top to bottom
In spite of California’s “green” image, Big Oil and other corporate interests have captured California regulators from top to bottom. The oil and gas lobby is the most powerful corporate lobby in California — and the Western States Petroleum Association is the single most powerful lobbying organization.
From 2001 to 2017 Chevron and AERA contributed $129 million of the $170 million spent by oil and gas interests to fund California political campaigns.
The Western States Petroleum Association, the oil and gas trade association of which Chevron and Aera are members, was the top-spending lobbyist in Sacramento in 5 of the last 7 election cycles. WSPA has spent a total $83,107,421 lobbying since 2005. Chevron spent $44,876,606 in that period, while Aera spent $5,627,258.56.
The latest conflicts of interest by eight DOGGR officials revealed by Consumer Watchdog are only the latest in series of conflicts of interests held by state regulatory officials. In one of the biggest conflicts of interest of the past 20 years, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Catherine Reheis-Boyd, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create faux “marine protected areas” in Southern California. Her organization was promoting the expansion of offshore fracking and drilling at the same time that she led the effort to create “marine protected areas” in the same region from 2009 to 2012.
It is no surprise that these faux “marine protected areas” fail to protect the ocean from fracking, oil and gas drilling, pollution, military testing and all human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering. Yet the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV), the Ocean Conservancy and other big “environmental” NGOs claimed that the privately led process that Reheis-Boyd lead was “open, transparent and inclusive,” even though it was anything but.
Reheis-Boyd also served on the task forces to create “marine protected areas” on the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast.
WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.
Because of this money and the power that Big Oil wields in California, the Jerry Brown administration, in stark contrast with its “green” facade, issued over 21,000 new oil and gas drilling permits in California. That include more than 200 permits for offshore wells in state waters — wells within 3 miles of the California coast.
The latest revelations by Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance show that the Newsom Administration, in spite of the hopes of fishermen, conservationists, environmental justice advocates and Tribal leaders, could be even more committed to serving the interests of oil and gas industry leaders than the Brown administration was.
In addition, the state of California under Brown — and now under Gavin Newson – controls four times as many offshore oil wells in state waters as Trump’s federal government controls in California waters. You can view the map showing the location of wells here.
This money and power also allowed the oil industry to write the cap-and-trade bill, AB 398, that Governor Brown signed in September 2017, as well as to twice defeat a bill to protect a South Coast marine protected area from offshore drilling.
Ironically, the same WSPA president that led the charge to defeat a bill to protect the Vandenberg State Marine Reserve from offshore oil drilling chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create these “marine protected areas” on the South Coast.
In addition, her organization served as the lobbyist for Plains All American, the pipeline responsible for the Refugio Oil Spill and the fouling of the same so-called “marine protected areas” that the “task force” she led helped to create. Over 140,000 gallons of crude spilled in the 2015 Plains All American Pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach in 2015.
These apparent conflict of interests should have been front page stories, but the reporters and editors in the mainstream and most alternative media outlets were apparently afraid to cover the deeper stories behind the sanitized narratives about the Refugio Oil Spill and the defeat of the bill to protect the Vandenberg State Marine Reserve.