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Prompted By Kern County Oil Seeps, Regulators Tighten Oversight Of Oil And Gas Extraction

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times (pool)
"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," said Governor Gavin Newsom during a visit to a surface expression in the Cymric oil field in July.

California oil and gas regulators announced today a series of initiatives aimed at better protecting public health and the environment, including more scrutiny of permitting for some extraction techniques and a moratorium on another called cyclic steam extraction. “These are necessary steps to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources,” wrote Governor Gavin Newsom in a press release. “This transition cannot happen overnight; it must advance in a deliberate way to protect people, our environment, and our economy.”

Officials with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) announced they’re prohibiting new permits for an oil extraction technique known as cyclic steam injection, which involves forcing high-pressure steam underground in order to loosen hard-to-extract oil.

“During the moratorium, regulators will consult with experts to examine records from recent leaks of oil and water, known as surface expressions, in the Cymric oil field in Kern County to determine whether high-pressure cyclic steaming can be done safely and in compliance with recent regulations that make surface expressions illegal,” read the release. Millions of gallons of oil and water have surfaced in the oil field in just this year near active steam injection wells, not including the tens of millions of gallons more that have been flowing at one particular site since 2003.

Juan Flores of the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment praised the decision, saying it’s the type of move former Governor Jerry Brown had promised but never followed through on. “Now we have a new governor, Governor Newsom, who is actually putting his money where his mouth is,” he said, “not only claiming to be but actually becoming a leader.”

Flores says it’s about time the state stopped to evaluate the practice of steam injection “We’re finally going to be able to find out what is going on, what’s the methodology, what are the consequences of such things, and what is the impact both in humans and on the environment?” he said.

However, Kara Greene of the Western States Petroleum Association said that steam injection has been used safely for decades, and warns that any energy not produced in the state as a result of the moratorium will need to be generated elsewhere, where health and environmental regulations may be looser. “Ultimately that cost is going to be borne by the consumer, whether that’s increased prices, impacts on the environment,” she said.

Officials with DOGGR also announced an independent audit of their permitting process for well stimulation techniques, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. Simultaneously, the agency will be sharing pending well stimulation permits with independent experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “The division is instituting a third-party scientific review of pending well stimulation permit applications to ensure the state’s technical standards for public health, safety and environmental protection are met prior to approval of each permit,” read the press release.

“I think that what they’re going to find is results that are similar to the numerous state and local agencies that have looked into our excellent health and safety record in terms of production in California,” said Greene.

The agency’s announcement also heralded new rules to protect residents and communities near oil and gas extraction sites. The agency promised a series of workshops to consider a range of measures, including buffer zones that would prohibit oil and gas activity in close proximity to schools, communities and hospitals. Officials wrote they expect new or modified rules by late 2020. “We are updating rules to better ensure that public health and safety are protected as we continue the transition away from carbon extraction to a renewable energy future,” wrote Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of California’s Natural Resources agency.

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.
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