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Spill Draws Attention to Steam-Based Oil Extraction

Photograph of "crude oil surface expression" at Cymric Oil Field. | Still by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Spill Prevention and Response
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Created in partnership with Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

When the news broke, in the second week of July, that nearly 800,000 gallons of oil and water had spilled into a dry creekbed from an oil production facility in Kern County, California, it sounded rare and dramatic. But the spill — which Ted Goldberg at KQED news discovered while researching a different story — was unique only in its magnitude. In the oil fields of the San Joaquin Valley, spills and seeps of oil, wastewater and oil-laced wastewater are as common as the wind storms that episodically blanket the Valley with dust. Some are small, “low-energy seeps.” Some persist for months despite attempts to contain them. Some erupt like volcanoes, sending steamed oil and debris as high as 100 feet into the air.

State records show that the Chevron spill in the Cymric Oil Field 40 miles west of Bakersfield began on May 10, and re-emerged three more times despite attempts to contain it. Chevron has reported that its staff has traced the rupture back to a decommissioned well in an area where the company repeatedly injects high-pressure steam underground to loosen stubborn oil. “It’s like turning oil from the consistency of peanut butter into the consistency of honey,” says Deborah Gordon, who conducts research on climate policy relating to oil and gas at Brown University’s Watson Institute for Public Affairs. The procedure allows drillers to increase recovery by seven times, according to the California Resources Corporation. More than half the wells in California use it.

Cyclic steam is much more common in California than hydrofracturing, which involves breaking open rock formations with a slurry of sand and chemically treated fluid. The heat required by the process, mostly generated by natural gas, is one of the factors that makes California oil so much worse for the climate than Texas sweet crude or light oil from North Dakota's Bakken Formation. The other factor is that California oil fields are not only old and nearly played out, but that California oil by its very nature is a “heavy” hydrocarbon, that emits more pollutants when refined into gasoline.

"It’s like turning oil from the consistency of peanut butter into the consistency of honey.”

Cyclic steam stimulation is not only bad for the environment, but also potentially deadly. On June 20, 2011, a 54-year-old Chevron engineer, Robert David Taylor, was inspecting a steam-injected well in the Midway-Sunset oil field, near Taft. The soil gave way beneath him, and he died in a 190-degree cauldron of water and hydrogen sulfide. Chevron admitted the presence of a damaged well near the site of the sinkhole, and evidence emerged that cyclic steaming continued on in the vicinity despite that knowledge. Chevron, which is protected by law against wrongful death suits brought by employees’ families, was fined $350 by CalOSHA.

“When you inject steam underground, and you’re doing it in shallow formations, you sometimes create pathways to the surface,” says Briana Mordick, a senior scientist and geologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. That especially happens in the shallow, diatomite crust that lies above many of Central California’s oil formations. “Then it becomes almost impossible to control.” 

Major Oil Spills in California
Major Oil Spills in California | Henry Cram

1. Cymric Oil Field (2019)
974,400 gallons* of crude oil and water
Cause: Seepage related to steam injection activity

2. Refugio Beach Oil Spill (2015)
126,000 gallons of crude oil
Cause: Ruptured underground pipeline

3. Cosco Busan Oil Spill (2007)
53,000 gallons marine diesel fuel
Cause: Container ship struck Bay Bridge, puncturing vessel

4. Kinder Morgan Suisun Marsh (2004)
123,000 gallons of diesel
Cause: Pipeline rupture

5. ARCO Santa Clara River Spill (1994)
190,000 gallons of oil
Cause: Pipeline fracture caused by Northridge Earthquake

6. American Trader Spill (1990)
416,000 gallons of crude oil
Cause: Oil tanker punctured by its own anchor

7. Shell Oil Martinez Refinery Spill (1988)
400,000 gallons of crude oil
Cause: Leaking tank

8. Arizona Standard - Oregon Standard Collision (1971)
840,000 gallons of crude oil
Cause: Oil tankers collided due to fog

9. Santa Barbara Oil Spill (1969)
3 million gallons of crude oil and gas
Cause: Well blowout on offshore oil platform

10. Avila Beach Spill (1950-1996)
400,000 gallons of crude oil
Cause: Numerous pipeline leaks

11. Guadalupe Oil Field Spill (1950-1994)
12 million gallons of solvent
Cause: Numerous pipeline leaks

12. San Francisco Bay Spill (1937)
2.73 million gallons of crude oil
Cause: Oil tanker collided with a passenger ship

13. Lakeview Gusher (1910-1911)
378 million gallons of crude oil
Cause: Well blowout

*The Cymric Oil Field leak remains active as of July 23, 2019.
It was in the months after Taylor’s death that state regulators at the Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) rushed to draw up emergency rules for steam-injected oil wells. Public focus at the time was on fracking, but they understood the more-common practice of cyclic steam posed a bigger problem. They asked oil producers to submit well designs and geological studies. They asked them to report how often and where they were injecting steam. They set standards for calibrating underground pressure and analyzing surface fractures. A draft of new regulations were being prepared for distribution to stakeholders for comment. But before that happened, two of those regulators, Derek Chernow, director of DOGGR’s parent agency, the Department of Conservation, and his lead at DOGGR, Elena Miller, were fired from their jobs. The regulations, along with the spill map, were shelved. Prominent on the spill map was Well 20, where Taylor died.

Then-Governor Jerry Brown didn’t conceal his reasons for firing the regulators. He fully admitted that the stiffer regulations were slowing down new well permits. (The state was later cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing “produced water” — polluted water leftover from oil production — to be injected into aquifers reserved for drinking water, a different issue than steam injection.) California was deep in a budget crisis, and oil was selling for $111 a barrel – almost twice what it is now. No one knows for sure whether those regulations would have prevented the current spill. But they would at least have created a paper trail back to its origins. 

California Fish and Wildlife spokesman Steve Gonzalez has said the most recent Chevron spill’s impacts to wildlife have so far been “minimal.” The Department of Conservation reports Chevron is deterring wildlife from the site with the use of “loud cannons.” Nor are there “reported injuries or threats to drinking water or to waters of current or future beneficial use at this time”; the nearest town, McKittrick, is three-and-a-half miles away. DOGGR has ordered Chevron to clean up the spill well before winter rains come, which might recharge the ephemeral stream bed it contaminated.

The agency also reported that, despite State Oil and Gas Supervisor Jason Marshall ordering the company to stop the release of oil, on July 17 and again on July 23, oil began to leak from the site again. Chevron has now been ordered to cease cyclic steaming within a 1,200-foot radius of the incident. As of this writing, the volume of oil released stands at 974,400 gallons.

There are signs, albeit tentative ones, that the agencies in California are cracking down on the state’s extractive industries. On April 1, new regulations governing underground injection wells of all kinds, from steam to wastewater, went into effect. Also included are underground gas storage facilities, similar to the one at Aliso Canyon near Los Angeles, which leaked some 100,000 tons of methane into the air between Oct. 23, 2015 and the February 2016. Mordick thinks the regulations could be stronger, but acknowledges the challenges in drawing them up. “Cyclic steaming is something that, at least in the United States, only really happens in California,” she says. “All the knowledge of it is held within the oil and gas industry. There’s not a lot of literature on best practices” for regulators to draw upon.

And California now has a new governor, Gavin Newsom, who recently signed off on a state budget that includes $1.5 million to study a managed decline of California oil production. The governor appears to be serious: Also in the second week of July, two nonprofit organizations, Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance, issued a report on financial conflicts of interest among DOGGR staff. Newsom almost immediately fired the top state oil and gas regulator, Brown-appointee Ken Harris.

“We expect California to become the first major oil-producing state to make a plan for a just transition from oil to renewable energy... and phase out oil in a way that protects workers, protects our economy, and protects our public health.”

Environmentalists are hopeful that the firing is a sign of better things to come. “We expect California to become the first major oil-producing state to make a plan for a just transition from oil to renewable energy,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, “and phase out oil in a way that protects workers, protects our economy, and protects our public health. The writing’s on the wall.”

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