Groups Say Huge Oil Spill Endangers Central Valley Residents, Highlights State Agency’s Negligence

In this photo taken on May 10, 2019, oil flows at at a Chevron oil filed in Kern County, California's top oil producing county. Photo courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response via AP. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

MCKITTRICK, CA - A massive oil spill even bigger than the Plains All American Pipeline disaster off Refugio Beach in Santa Barbara in 2015 has occurred in Kern County, as first reported by KQED. The latest disaster has spilled more than a half-million gallons of oil and wastewater into the surrounding area over the past couple of months.
“Chevron first reported the spill to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on June 8,” according to a statement by the Last Chance Alliance.  “It happened in the Cymric Oil Field, where the company uses an extreme oil-extraction technique called steam injection. The agency responsible for regulating the fossil fuel industry in California, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), adopted weaker restrictions on the practice earlier this year, making these operations even more dangerous.”
This latest disaster takes place in a state where Big Oil and Big Gas have captured the regulators from top to bottom. The oil industry is the largest and most powerful corporate lobby in Sacramento and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the trade association for the oil industry in California and other Western states, is the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying organization.
Representatives of groups in the coalition responded to the latest oil industry disaster in California.
“This toxic spill proves that the stakes are too high to trust DOGGR and other regulatory agencies to protect communities,” said Juan Flores, a Kern County community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. “The fact that these regulators consistently put industry interests over health and safety is unacceptable. Enforcement of existing regulations and enactment of basic protections like health and safety zones are long overdue.” 
In 2018 at the request of Chevron and other oil companies, state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved an exemption that removed protections from an aquifer in the Cymric Oil Field, according to the coalition.
“Those agencies assured the public that allowing injection would not endanger nearby groundwater because the fluids would not migrate. This spill brings into question the assumptions behind that decision,” the coalition said.
“We have lost all faith in the ability of DOGGR to do its job of protecting Californians, and we call on the Governor to completely reform this corporate-captured agency,” said Linda Hutchins-Knowles, California Senior Organizer for Mothers Out Front. “Regulators should not be allowed to own stock in the very industry they’re supposed to regulate. As California faces serious water scarcity, we need increased protections for our aquifers, not weakened rules.”
“Because much of California’s remaining oil is heavy or otherwise hard to access, extreme-extraction techniques like steam injection and fracking are increasingly widespread. These practices are incredibly carbon-intensive — making California’s oil even more climate-damaging — and pose a serious contamination risk to nearby air and water sources,” the coalition stated.
The news of the spill came just hours after Governor Newsom’s office fired DOGGR head Ken Harris for doubling the fracking permits issued during his time as governor without his knowledge and reports of conflict of interest among senior officials, as documented in my reporting on a groundbreaking report by Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance:…
From January 1 to June 3 of 2018, the State’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) approved 2,365 new oil and gas well permits and 191 fracking permits, according to Department of Conservation data analyzed by Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance.
The data shows that this year regulators have increased the number of permits granted for drilling new wells by 35.3%, well reworks by 28.3%, and fracking by 103.2%, as compared to the permitting rate during the final year of the Brown administration in 2018.
Even more alarming, of the 2,365 well permits issued, 1064 or 45% of them benefited oil companies invested in by DOGGR officials, the groups reported.
The news of the spill also came just as Governor Gavin Newsom appointed a former Exxon/Mobil and Northrup Grumman employee to the  South Coast Air Quality Management Board:
“We’re incredibly grateful to the governor for taking this information seriously and acting quickly. In its current structure, however, DOGGR has never demonstrated an ability to put public health and safety first and it needs greater reform than just a new leader,” said Gladys Limon, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “Californians also need immediate action to remediate the harms that have been caused in communities across the state, starting with the implementation of a 2,500 ft. health and safety buffer.”  
Despite the climate and health harms, California continues to be one of the nation’s top oil-producing states. The Last Chance Alliance, composed of more than 500 public-interest groups, is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom “to stop permitting for fossil fuel projects and commit to a just transition plan to phase out the state’s existing fossil fuel extraction, starting with wells within 2,500 feet of homes and schools.”
“The Chevron spill clearly shows that California needs stronger climate leadership from the Governor. Yet, instead of steering the state in the right direction, Governor Newsom has approved oil and gas permits at double the rate as Governor Brown before him,” said Annie Leonard, Executive Director at Greenpeace USA. “Oil and gas infrastructure will never be free from spills and leaksor from spewing climate pollution. We face a growing public health crisis and climate emergency stoked by rampant oil and gas development. It’s time for a reckoning. Governor Newsom, it’s time to stop the expansion of fossil fuels in California.”
“Doubling down on new drilling is incompatible with climate leadership, and for the first time we’re seeing a California governor recognize and begin to act on this reality,” said Kelly Trout, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International. “Acknowledging the need to ‘transition away from oil and gas extraction’ is huge because it resets expectations. State agencies should be focused on how to rapidly and justly wind down oil and gas extraction, not on easing the way for Chevron and other polluters to drill us further towards disaster.” 
“Clean air, fresh water, and safe housing are fundamental human rights, which are under constant threat from the unrelenting climate crisis and reckless fossil fuel extraction,” said Matt Nelson, Executive Director, “Families across California deserve to live in safe communities, free from climate devastation, harmful fossil fuel companies, and corrupt government agencies. We deserve a state government that is not afraid to protect our climate and all the people. Holding DOGGR accountable is a step on a path toward the California leadership we want and need.”
Background: Big Oil regulatory capture from top to bottom  
In spite of California’s “green” image, Big Oil and other corporate interests have captured California regulators from top to bottom. The oil and gas lobby is the most powerful corporate lobby in California — and the Western States Petroleum Association is the single most powerful lobbying organization.
From 2001 to 2017 Chevron and AERA contributed $129 million of the $170 million spent by oil and gas interests to fund California political campaigns, according to the groups. The Western States Petroleum Association, the oil and gas trade association of which Chevron and Aera are members, was the top-spending lobbyist in Sacramento in 5 of the last 7 election cycles.
WSPA has spent a total $83,107,421 lobbying since 2005. Chevron spent $44,876,606 in that period; Aera spent $5,627,258.56.
The latest conflicts of interest by eight DOGGR officials revealed by Consumer Watchdog are only the latest in series of conflicts of interests held by state regulatory officials. In one of the biggest conflicts of interest of the past 20 years, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), Catherine Reheis-Boyd, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create faux “marine protected areas” in Southern California. Her organization was promoting the expansion of offshore fracking and drilling at the same time that she led the effort to create “marine protected areas” in the same region from 2009 to 2012.
It is no surprise that these faux “marine protected areas” fail to protect the ocean from fracking, oil and gas drilling, pollution, military testing and all human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering. Yet the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV), the Ocean Conservancy and other big “environmental” NGOs claimed that the privately led process that Reheis-Boyd lead was “open, transparent and inclusive,” even though it was anything but.
Reheis-Boyd also served on the task forces to create “marine protected areas” on the Central Coast, North Central Coast and North Coast.  
WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 6 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups: (5) working in collaboration with media; and (6) contributing to non profit organizations.
Because of this money and the power that Big Oil wields in California, the Jerry Brown administration, in stark contrast with its “green” facade, issued over 21,000  new oil and gas drilling permits in California. That include more than 200 permits for offshore wells in state waters -- wells within 3 miles of the California coast.
The latest revelations by Consumer Watchdog and the FracTracker Alliance show that the Newsom Administration, in spite of the hopes of fishermen, conservationists, environmental justice advocates and Tribal leaders, is apparently even more committed to serving the interests of oil and gas industry leaders than the Brown administration was.
In addition, the state of California under Brown — and now under Gavin Newson - controls four times as many offshore oil wells in state waters as Trump’s federal government controls in California waters. You can view the map showing the location of wells here:

This money and power also allowed allowed the oil industry to write the cap-and-trade bill, AB 398, that Governor Brown signed in September 2017, as well as to twice defeat a bill to protect a South Coast marine protected area from offshore drilling.
Ironically, the same WSPA president that led the charge to defeat a bill to protect the Vandenberg State Marine Reserve from offshore oil drilling chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create these “marine protected areas” on the South Coast. This should have been a front page story, but the reporters and editors in the mainstream and most alternative media outlets were apparently afraid to cover this huge story.
For more information about WSPA and Big Oil, read my piece: California's Biggest Secret? How Big Oil Dominates Public Discourse to Manipulate and Deceive:

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