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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

Air quality, pipeline risks top environmental advocates’ concerns about proposed Kern carbon storage project

Oil pumps are part of the landscape in Kern County, CA, the top oil-producing county in the state.
Harika Maddala
Oil pumps are part of the landscape in Kern County, CA, the top oil-producing county in the state.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A public meeting this week provided a glimpse into the tensions surrounding a carbon capture and storage project proposed for the foothills above Bakersfield, California, in the heart of the state’s oil country.

The project, known as Carbon TerraVault 1, would be the first in California to capture and store planet-warming carbon dioxide deep underground, about a mile beneath a Kern County oil field. The company behind the project, California Resources Corporation (CRC), a leading oil producer in the state, says the TerraVault could help the state reduce carbon emissions.

But at Wednesday’s “virtual public workshop,” environmental and community advocates repeatedly raised concerns about risks to air quality and public safety – concerns that federal and county officials spent much of the online meeting trying to address. According to the American Lung Association, air pollution in Kern County ranks among the worst in the country.

In its environmental review of the project, a draft of which it released last month, Kern County’s planning department acknowledged the Terravault was likely to cause “significant and unavoidable” impacts to air quality. At the public meeting, officials said the county already had some plans to mitigate those impacts and was looking for the community’s feedback to develop more.

Lorelei Oviatt, the county’s planning and natural resources director, said that because the oil field itself is large, determining the potential risks from the proposed TerraVault is a challenge.

“The question is what are actually generating impacts?” said Oviatt. “And how are those impacts going to affect our disadvantaged communities, our employees who work out there, our air, and other things we all share?”

A pipeline, water, and transparency

The Terravault proposal also includes plans for a pipeline that would carry carbon dioxide generated around the Elk Hills Oil Field to the storage site. According to the county’s review, the pipeline would be located about two miles from an elementary school.

Environmental advocates said the proposed location – and the risk of a leak or an explosion – posed a threat to nearby communities.

“The general public might have this image of Elk Hills being in the middle of nowhere, but it’s right next to a number of communities that are going to be facing the impacts from this project,” said Emma de la Rosa, a community organizer with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Oviatt said pipelines would have the “highest standard” of infrared cameras and automatic-shut-off valves to prevent the asphyxiating gas from leaking.

“If there are additional requirements that the state wants, they [CRC] will have to comply with those,” she added.

Community advocates also expressed concerns about risks to water quality and seismic safety. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicated it would approve permits that would allow CRC to drill injection wells through which the company would push carbon dioxide underground.

EPA officials, who participated in Wednesday’s meeting, said if approved, the wells will be outfitted with monitors that can detect seismic activity. All carbon would also be stored well below the region’s groundwater table to prevent contamination of the scarce resource, according to David Albright, an agency manager. Real-time data from the monitors as well as semi-annual reports would be available on a public website, Albright added.

CRC would also have to set aside funding to safely plug the wells in case they become damaged or abandoned, the agency said.

Kern County officials said that CRC would have to work with the local air district to fund clean-air projects in nearby communities. And Oviatt, the county’s planning director, said that Kern would likely impose a fee on each ton of carbon stored underground to help fund essential services.

The county is looking to the carbon storage industry to help provide some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue it anticipates losing by 2045, when the state plans to eliminate most oil drilling.

CRC officials did not speak at the workshop but told KVPR that the company would not oppose the proposed fee. They were focused on the project’s potential to help California meet its climate goals.

“This is truly a groundbreaking development,” said Omar Hayat, executive vice president of operations for CRC, of the project’s first step toward approval. “We think this will pave the way for expediting the transition to cleaner energy.”

He says the company has been working with communities near the proposed TerraVault site to address potential concerns.

“We’ve put a lot of effort getting out there, talking to neighbors,” Hayat said.

Environmental groups, though, said they were frustrated by a lack of transparency from the company and government officials.

“The public transparency is just not there,” de la Rosa said.

Residents and reporters who wanted to participate in the online meeting found the link didn’t work initially. A county representative had to send out an email with a new link shortly after the meeting was scheduled to begin.

The federal environmental agency would not provide a clear timeline for its final decision on the injection well permits. So far, it has only issued two such permits nationwide. It has scheduled another public hearing for Feb. 28.

Kern County officials said they will collect community feedback and include it in an amended environmental impact report that will be sent to the planning commission, ahead of a March 28 public hearing. The Kern County Board of Supervisors would have the final say on the project, likely before June, Oviatt said.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.