Another Day, Another California Oily Mess

California oil well field
Credit: US Bureau of Land Management

Earlier this month, thousands of gallons of crude oil started spouting out of the ground in Chevron’s Cymric oil field, creating a mess of toxic sludge covering the length of two football fields. Or, as they call it in Kern County, Tuesday.

These messy Southern California oil spills may not be a daily occurrence, but it’s sure starting to feel that way. Uncontrolled releases of crude oil to the surface at the Cymric oil field have been happening since 2003, with company estimates of 50 million gallons spilled, but with very little done about it until recently. In April of this year, a long overdue state regulation finally took effect banning the surface flows; followed rather promptly by yet another large spill at Cymric in July.

The immediate cause of all this uncontrolled surface goop is the process of cyclic steaming, involving injection of high-pressure steam underground to force out oil. Contrary to a lot of popular belief, cyclic steaming is more prevalent than fracking in California, accounting for more than half of our state’s production. It’s used a lot here because many of the state’s oil fields are old and played out, and the oil in them is very heavy—like Canadian tar sands oil, it’s roughly the consistency of peanut butter. So a lot of heat and force is needed to squeeze out the dwindling reserves, in a process that sometimes creates pathways to the surface. Couple that with sloppy practices by well operators to exacerbate the problem, and you have a pretty relentless mess.  

The bigger picture cause of the mess, however, is that this destructive practice has become embedded in California’s economy and politics. In the state where we boldly lead the nation with clean energy initiatives, we somehow are still in the business of using massive fossil fuel energy to make steam to extract heavy crude, which then requires yet more massive energy inputs to refine. This makes California’s crude some of the most carbon-intensive in the world. California communities—particularly communities of color—have in some cases become economically dependent on this industry, and bear the brunt of its polluting impacts. All the while, the powerful oil lobby in California spends millions to keep things exactly as they are. 

We are at the cusp, however, of an opportunity to start doing things differently. With respect to the spills, the state oil and gas regulator (renamed the Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM) recently fined Chevron $2.7 million for the July Cymric spill under the new regulations.  That isn’t nearly enough, and has been roundly mocked as totaling 9 minutes worth of Chevron’s annual revenue. But in fairness, it beats the previous complete lack of enforcement. More to the point, Governor Newsom recently appointed new top staff to CalGEM, one of them to replace the director whom he fired earlier this year in connection with conflicts of interest. We are hopeful that this new leadership signals a move toward more stringent enforcement and protection of the public interest. 

More generally speaking, we are pleased that the Governor has voiced a commitment to moving California away from oil production—notwithstanding our disappointment of his puzzling veto of NRDC-sponsored AB 1440, which would have removed antiquated statutory language calling for maximizing oil production. He has several times stated publicly, including in connection with the Cymric spills, that California needs wean itself off petroleum-based fuel. His 2019 budget funds a study to evaluate, among other things, strategies to reduce both the supply and demand for fossil fuels in the state. And he signed multiple bills earlier this month addressing regulation of oil and gas production.

These are all steps in the right direction, but they’re only first steps. The real test will be in the coming year, as the newly-minted directors at the newly-christened CalGEM dive into the task of strengthening the agency’s oversight over industry. And when the Governor and legislators put their heads together to make real progress toward weaning our clean energy state off its decidedly unclean crude oil industry.