Key State Lawmakers to Call for Hearings Into Chevron Oil Spill

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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)

The two top California lawmakers that oversee the state's oil industry plan to call for hearings into a recent, massive oil spill in Kern County and revelations that officials at the agency that regulate oil wells held investments in the companies they were supposed to keep watch over.

"I am absolutely committed to calling for an oversight hearing, once we have a new oil and gas supervisor, to look both at the spill and the response to the spill and to look at the conflict issues," Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, the chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, told KQED.

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Friedman's comments come as Chevron and state regulators revealed Thursday that a new leak started this week at the scene of the 800,000 gallon oil and water spill  in the Cyrmic Oil Field, which is about 35 miles west of Bakersfield. The first leak began two months ago.

State officials estimate about one-third of the main spill, or about 265,000 gallons, is crude petroleum. At the center of the spill is a Chevron oil well that relies on a technique in which steam is injected into the ground to heat up crude petroleum and make it easier to extract.

Late last week Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the firing of Ken Harris, the top official at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which regulates oil wells and other similar production. The firing came after reports surfaced of a dramatic recent increase in permits granted for hydraulic fracturing work and revelations that agency employees owned stock in the companies they regulate.

"We've got to get some trust built back in that agency," said Henry Stern, D-Ventura, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, told KQED in an interview.

Stern says DOGGR should not have waited two months to publicize information about the spill.

"This has been going on for over two months now. It's just unacceptable," said Stern, who represents Porter Ranch, an area affected greatly by the massive 2015 methane lake at the Aliso Canyon gas storage field.

Officials at the DOGGR didn't respond to a request for comment.

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Jason Marshal was appointed acting supervisor of DOGGR effective last Thursday. The next day he ordered Chevron to "take all measures" to stop the flow of oil at the spill. That order came after the division issued two notices of violation against Chevron in connection with the spill and required a halt to similar oil well operations in a 600 feet radius around the site.

Prompted by Wednesday's new leak, the agency expanded its requirements to cease oil work in the area to 1,200 feet.

Meantime, two other state legislators, along with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, are expressing concern about the spill and the agency that's looking into it.

On Thursday Feinstein issued a statement calling the incident "troubling".

"Almost as troubling as the spill itself is that it occurred at multiple times for two months, but we just learned about it," Feinstein said. "This is something the public should have been alerted to earlier. Proper oversight can't occur if incidents like these are kept under wraps."

State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who sits on the  Senate Committee on Environmental Quality, praised the governor for firing Harris.

"That is classic bad government to have the regulatory entity have financial involvement in the industry they're regulating," Skinner said. "We need to do more oversight and hold DOGGR to the expectation that I think all Californians have, which is protect our health and safety and stop this absurdity of allowing the oil industry to put us at risk."

The Kern County petroleum release should generate a conversation about new efforts to transition California away from fossil fuel, argued to Assemblymember Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara, who sits on the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and represents an area hit hard by past oil spills.

"To have a week where we heard not just about the oil spill but also conflict of interests concerns is a really clear reminder that despite California's best efforts, there's still work to be done," Limon said.

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