Juan Flores remembers sitting in a meeting in July when his phone started blowing up. He’s a community organizer with the non-profit advocacy group Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “A fellow colleague in environmental justice work, he literally called me three times,” he says.
Not wanting to disturb his meeting, Flores declined the calls at first. “By the third time, I said now this is something important and serious so let me actually step out and take the call,” he says.
The colleague was calling to tell Flores about a Kern County oil seep, which the state refers to as a surface expression. Dubbed the “1Y” expression, a dry streambed had begun filling with crude oil and water in the Cymric Oil Field west of Bakersfield. “What he told me next was, ‘and it has probably been going for months and we didn't know,’” Flores says.
Indeed, the 1Y seep, occurring just a few miles away from the unincorporated community of McKittrick, had first been reported to the state in May. Outside of a few overlooked social media posts, the state had not informed the public. A July 12 report by KQED broke the story.
That single surface expression, which released more than 1.3 million gallons of oily water before it was sealed, prompted fines and violations against the operator, a site visit from Governor Gavin Newsom, and investigations into state regulators, but spill reports reveal the amount of fluid released at 1Y represents only half of what’s seeped to the surface just this year, just in the Cymric Oil Field. Since July, at least a half dozen surface expressions have been reported into the state spill report database, including one in early November, totaling more than 2.7 million gallons of oil, water and mud. It’s enough to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools. The total doesn’t include any fluid released prior to 2019, including much of the estimated 82 million gallons that’s flowed intermittently since 2003 at another Cymric surface expression.
Under strengthened state regulations, these surface expressions became illegal only in April of this year. But that doesn’t mean the public knows about all of them or how close they occur to communities, both of which worry Flores. “It just became clear the problem is bigger,” Flores says, “and we really have to go out there and we really have to find out what's going on.”
That’s why, on a Saturday morning, Flores and a few others meet at a small terminal at Bakersfield’s Meadows Field Airport and cram shoulder-to-shoulder into a single-engine 5-passenger Cessna. The goal of the flight, sponsored by a handful of environmental groups, is to provide a thousand-foot view of oil and gas development in the Bakersfield area. “So we're going to start heading west toward the Cymric Oil Field,” says the unofficial narrator of the flight.
Once in the air, passengers chattering in noise-cancelling headsets, rolling sunburnt hills full of well pads and derricks extend in every direction. In 2017, Kern County produced more than 70 percent of the state’s oil and gas. That same year, a report by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimated the industry provided Kern with 21,000 direct jobs and $2 billion in economic benefits.
The pilot steers the plane first toward 1Y, the site of the first surface expression publicized in July. The state originally claimed the seep posed no danger, but later reversed that claim after four birds were oiled and died. The site is hard to find, one of many gullies carved into low hills, but once in sight it appears to be fully cleared as the state has reported, with oil trucked out and contaminated soil removed. Petroleum producer Chevron, which operates this and most of the other sites where seeps have occurred, maintains there was never a risk to human health.
The cause of these seeps is still unknown. The Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, the state oil and gas regulator known as DOGGR, is investigating whether they could be related to a well stimulation technique known as cyclic steam injection. The process involves forcing high-pressure steam underground to heat the oil and cause it to rise toward a wellhead, where it can then be recovered. The technique is widely used around the state, mostly without problems, but in some instances, oil has risen to the surface in unanticipated locations. In 2011, an oil worker in another Kern County oil field died after falling into a sinkhole where oil injected with steam had unexpectedly surfaced.
After the 1Y site, the passengers can see a concrete structure where Chevron is actively cleaning up a series of seeps known collectively as GS-5, where tens of millions of gallons of fluid have surfaced intermittently for 16 years. It’s where a new flow broke out on November 8. “The steam block that is currently in place around GS-5 continues to alter the distribution of energy in the reservoir,” wrote a Chevron spokesperson in an email to KVPR, “and may lead to reactivations or new flow locations in the near term, such as the 11-08 event.”
In the end, the plane couldn’t fly close enough to clearly reveal more detail of surface expressions than what’s already been reported by Chevron and the state. Still, Tom Frantz, an environmental advocate and almond farmer in Shafter, appreciated that he could see cleanup infrastructure, particularly at the GS-5 area. “There were pumps on site, you could see them from the air. There were tankers there waiting to be filled with some of the crude that spilled out of the ground,” he says, as well as netting to keep wildlife away. “So it was all very informative to see that from the air."
Frantz’s other major concern, howeer, is transparency and accountability from state regulators, beginning with how they share information with the public. Agencies like DOGGR have stepped up their communication efforts in the last few months, posting websites with information about the surface expressions and readily answering questions from the media, but details are scattered among many pages that are not all kept up to date. “Spills like this have to be reported and those are available publicly, but it's not easy to find these reports,” Frantz agrees. He has posted a video from the November flight to Youtube.
Officials at DOGGR have slapped Chevron with numerous violations and a $2.7 million fine, but during the same time period the agency saw its lead administrator fired by Governor Gavin Newsom after several staff members were found to have invested in the oil companies they regulate.
Representatives of DOGGR agreed to answer questions by email but did not respond by the publication deadline. The story will be updated when they do.
As for what Frantz, Flores and other environmental advocates want, it’s not to shut down the entire oil industry; instead, they’d like to see steam injection scaled back until more questions are answered. “They need to pull back a little bit, maybe to 75 percent of what they've been trying to do,” Frantz says, “and it would be a lot safer then.”
“Our operational goal is to prevent seeps consistent with DOGGR’s updated regulations, and we continue to work closely with regulators to address any seeps that occur,” wrote Chevron in its email statement. “We will apply lessons learned from the unique circumstances of Cymric 1Y and GS-5 and apply them, where applicable, if other seeps occur.”