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Kern County Oil Seep Exceeds A Million Gallons; Newsom Pays A Visit

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times (pool)
Governor Gavin Newsom visited the site where more than a million gallons of oil and water have seeped from an oilfield near the Kern County community of McKittrick on July 24, 2019.

An oil seep in Western Kern County has now grown to more than a million gallons in size. On Wednesday, for the first time since the spill was reported, Governor Gavin Newsom paid a visit to the site near the community of McKittrick.

After touring the area around the dry streambed where the fluid is contained and meeting with the heads of state agencies in charge of the cleanup, Newsom said he was optimistic about the situation. “I felt better about the fact that they seem to be getting a handle on this, though we’re not out of the woods,” he said. “We want to learn from this and we’ll get to the bottom of it and we’re going to make sure we tighten things up.”

"We appreciate Governor Newsom taking the time to visit the site to assess the current situation and cleanup operations," said a representative of oil and gas giant Chevron in an email statement. "We are committed to working in collaboration with state agencies to resolve this issue and take measures to prevent similar situations in the future."

Chevron first reported the seep to state regulators in early May, but lawmakers and the public found out about it two months later in mid-July. At that time the company reported the seep had stopped, but the mix of oil and brine has continued to seep out of vents in the ground.

No injuries were reported, and agency representatives continue to assert that because the flow is contained, environmental impacts are minimal. The state oil and gas regulator reports that noisemakers are being employed to keep birds and other wildlife away from the area. The fluid is flowing out of the Cymric oilfield, which was California's fourth most productive in 2016.

The seep came to light the same week that Newsom called for the dismissal of the head of the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Regulation, or DOGGR, over allegations that top oil and gas regulators had financial ties to the companies they oversee. “As you know, I made some tough choices at DOGGR," Newsom said on Wednesday. "I want to see things done differently there.”

The cause of the seep is still unknown, though the incident has led to speculation that steam injection, a well stimulation technique used to force oil out of subsurface reservoirs, in nearby wells caused the fluid to flow out of the ground.

Twenty miles north of McKittrick, the community of Lost Hills lies within a mile of the state’s sixth largest oilfield, where steam injection is also a common well stimulation technique. Saul Ruiz, resident and president of the Lost Hills Committee in Action, worries what’s happening outside McKittrick could happen near any oilfield community. “The risk that they ran over there is the very same risk that they’re running with this community, and with other communities like Taft, Buttonwillow, Coalinga, and Bakersfield,” he says in Spanish.

So far, DOGGR has issued two violations against Chevron and has ordered the company to cease all operations that could be contributing to the flow of oil and water.

During his visit, Newsom also spoke about his goal of transitioning California away from fossil fuels, while also acknowledging the important of the petroleum industry to the state’s economy.

This story was updated with comment from Chevron.

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.