New Chevron Crude Spills Emerge in Kern County Oil Field

Gov. Gavin Newsom is briefed by Billy Lacobie, of Chevron (center) and Jason Marshall (right) of the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) on July 24, 2019, while touring an oil field near Bakersfield.  (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Pool)

Thousands of gallons of crude petroleum began spouting out of the ground near a part of Chevron's steam injection well network in a Kern County oil field over the weekend, prompting a new cleanup effort and state response.

The two new spills, one of which covered the length of two football fields, are in the northwestern portion of the Cymric Oil Field, in the same area where a larger uncontrolled release of 234,000 gallons of oil has taken place since August.

A map showing a series of uncontrolled oil releases in the 36W section of the Cymric Oil Field. (Department of Conservation)

A "seep" in an area of the field called 36W began leaking a small amount of oil on Oct. 12 but has now stopped, according to Chevron and state officials.

Early the next morning, a larger release in the same area began sending crude petroleum and water into a dry stream bed and land nearby. The company said late Monday that close to 10,000 gallons of oil has been released from the second spill, prompting crews to bring in vacuum trucks and begin cleanup work.

That second release was initially described as "very active" with high energy steam and fluid, according to Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Conservation, which oversees the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

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The two spill locations are 340 feet apart, Schilling said, adding that there are no active wells or cyclic steam work near the new surface expressions, a term used by state regulators and industry officials to describe the oil releases.

Chevron said its work to stop a much larger and longer-term release, that's located close to 2,400 feet away, may be causing the new seeps, according to company spokeswoman Veronica Flores-Paniagua. That spill, known as the GS-5 seep, has released tens of millions of gallons of oil since 2003.

"Chevron is currently executing a plan designed to stop the GS-5 seep by reducing the amount of steam being injected into the reservoir and balancing fluid withdrawal," Flores-Paniagua said in an email.

"This continues to alter the distribution of energy in the reservoir and may lead to reactivation or new flow locations in the near term," she said, adding that the company's "operational goal" is to prevent the releases.

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California's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) has sent crews to each of the new oil releases, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Eric Laughlin.

"We are still out there overseeing cleanup of the two areas," Laughlin said, adding that the oil had spread approximately 700 feet into the nearby stream bed.

As it has for other oil releases in the field, Chevron is restricting access to the spill site, installing lights and a propane cannon to keep wildlife away, according to Schilling.

Environmentalists who've followed Chevron's problems in the Cymric Oil Field said the weekend spills raised a new round of concerns.

"We can clearly see the issues in this region with practices such as steam flooding and injection to extract crude is a growing problem," said Gustavo Aguirre Jr., a Bakersfield project coordinator with the Central California Environmental Justice Network.

"The question is for how much longer will we continue to dam off these stream beds from oil spills as the rain season is upon us? This is creeping into a disaster that we need to control right away," Aguirre said.

Hollin Kretzmann, an Oakland-based attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, laid blame on DOGGR and called on Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration to revoke Chevron's oil permits, close down the company's wells and move away from fossil fuel production.

"These spills keep happening in California because our regulators haven't gotten tough with the oil industry," Kretzmann said. "Relatively meager fines won't stop some of the world's richest companies from making big money while contaminating our state's air and water."

The new spills began shortly after Chevron appealed a $2.7 million fine issued by DOGGR in connection with a separate spill of close to 450,000 gallons of crude into a stream bed that took place between May and July in the same oil field.

On Friday, OSPR announced that the months-long cleanup work associated with that spill, in an area known as 1Y, was complete. The 1Y incident led to the death of four oiled birds.

New regulations went into effect in April, barring the oil releases. State lawmakers plan to hold an oversight hearing on the spills this winter.

Correction: This story previously reported that the recent leaks in the 36-W area were 750 feet away from the years long GS-5 spill. It was updated to state that the two sites are close to 2,400 feet apart. 

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