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'The Scale Of This Is Just So Shocking:' Chevron Reports Massive Oil Seep In Kern County

California Office of Spill Prevention and Response
The California Office of Spill Prevention and Response posted this photo of the seep to social media in May, when Chevron estimated that it amounted to less than 6,000 gallons.

Update July 24:

Chevron reports the seep has grown to more than a million gallons in size.

Update July 19:

Inspectors from the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources reported that oil and water continue to seep out of three vents where the flow had previously been reported to have stopped. The agency has issued two Notices of Violation to Chevron, and it reports that vacuum trucks are removing the oil-water mix from the dry streambed where it has pooled.

Original story reported July 12:

Oil producing giant Chevron believes it has stopped a Kern County oil seep that had been quietly growing for two months.

Until this past Thursday, crude oil had been seeping out of the ground intermittently since May 10 in the Cymric oilfield. Roughly 35 miles west of Bakersfield, the oilfield is located just a few miles away from the unincorporated community of McKittrick with a population of just over 100 residents.

As of July 12, the company estimates nearly 800,000 gallons of a brackish oil-water mix had flowed out of the ground. The total volume is greater than what spilled from the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota in 2017, and would amount to one of the country’s largest onshore oil releases in the last decade. Only a third of the fluid in this case, however, is crude oil. The rest is wastewater, a noxious brine known to contain salts, metals and other contaminants.

Credit Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources
Drone imagery taken July 13 and July 16, 2019, shows where nearly 800,000 gallons of an oil-water mix pooled after seeping out of at least three openings in the ground in the Cymric oilfield west of Bakersfield.

Spokesperson Mary Fricke of the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, or OSPR, says the seep is contained. “Our OSPR teams have been monitoring this crude oil release that has flown into a dry intermittent stream bed,” she says.

Chevron reports the flow has stopped and an emailed statement from the state Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, says it’s contained within a 250-by-20-ft segment of the empty streambed. “The investigation into the cause of the release is ongoing,” says Fricke.

That worries Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The scale of this is just so shocking,” he says.

OSPR and Chevron have reported no visible damage to wildlife or the environment, but Kretzmann is dubious. “The fact that it’s contained at the surface doesn’t tell you how much damage they’ve done underneath,” he says.

DOGGR reports that Chevron initially suspected the fluid source was a leaking, previously-plugged well, which the company subsequently re-sealed. “But that didn’t stop material from coming to the surface,” DOGGR’s statement reads.

In an effort to staunch the flow, DOGGR has worked with Chevron to release pressure on the area by increasing oil production from some nearby wells and halting well stimulation in others. Many operators in the Cymric oilfield utilize steam injection, a powerful well stimulation technique that forces steam into underground formations to push heavy crude oil out of production wells.

An emailed statement from Chevron confirms the company “is using pumps to remotely extract fluids from the containment area until regulatory agencies deem the area safe for entry and full cleanup.”

None of the state’s regulating agencies ever distributed a press release or public notice about the seep, though OSPR did publish four posts on Facebook and Twitter through its CalSpillWatch division. Together, the posts garnered fewer than 50 responses.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.