State Orders Chevron to Stop Massive Crude Oil Release From Kern County Well

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Image showing portion of dry creekbed fouled by oil spill at a Chevron well site in Kern County.  (California Department of Conservation)

Saying that Chevron has failed to do all it should have to stop a massive release of crude oil at a Kern County well site, state regulators have ordered the company "to take all measures" to stop the flow and prevent a recurrence.

The incident, in an oil field near the town of McKittrick and 35 miles west of Bakersfield, has spilled an estimated 800,000 gallons of water and crude oil into a dry creek bed. Regulators estimate about one-third of the flow, or about 265,000 gallons, is oil.

Kern County Oil Spill
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The state's order was issued late Friday by Jason Marshall, the new acting head of the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The directive came the day after Gov. Gavin Newsom fired DOGGR chief Ken Harris after reports of a dramatic increase in agency permits for fracking and allegations that some agency officials own stock in the companies they're regulating.

The Kern County releases, which began May 10, had prompted DOGGR to serve San Ramon-based Chevron with a notice of violation and an order to halt some oil extraction work in the area immediately surrounding the incident.

Friday's order calls for further steps. Regulators ordered the company to completely halt the flow of oil and water -- a phenomenon called a "surface expression" -- and head off new releases.

"The supervisor is requiring the operator, among other things, to take all measures to stop flow from the established surface expressions near the subject well and prevent any new surface expressions," the order states.

The agency also said that Chevron had not done enough to stop the releases.

"The division has determined that operator has had a continuous and interconnected series of surface expressions on its property that are not 'low-energy seeps' where, based upon the supervisor's information and belief, operator has not yet done everything that is necessary to prevent future occurrences," the agency's order said.

“Chevron takes these matters seriously," the company said in a Saturday statement. "We will review the order and continue working in a collaborative manner with the involved agencies.

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The company said no new fluid had come to the surface near the well site since Tuesday, July 9, and that the 90 percent of the released material has been recovered. The company has also said the incident has not affected waterways or wildlife.

Teresa Schilling, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation, which oversees DOGGR, said in an email Saturday that the division's inspectors were at the well site and have confirmed that the flow was contained.

The surface flows near the Chevron well began May 10, halted for a time, then started up again on June 8 and once more on June 23.

The incident took place in an area where Chevron and other companies operate oil wells, many using a method in which steam is injected far underground to heat up underground crude to make it easier to extract.

The DOGGR order noted that state regulations bar steam injection projects from producing surface expressions like the one that started in May.

After KQED's initial reports of the release, environmentalists blasted the oil industry and the agency that oversees it.

"The Chevron spill clearly shows that California needs stronger climate leadership from the governor," said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, in a statement Friday morning.

"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," Leonard said.

Within 10 days of Friday's order, a Chevron technical team is required to meet with DOGGR officials and provide the agency with data about the incident, including information about its oil well operations in the area over the last two years.

Regulations allow Chevron to appeal the order. But if it remains in effect and the company does not comply, DOGGR says the company faces a series of fines and more enforcement actions that could include the division rejecting Chevron applications for future oil well operations .

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