July 12, 2019

David Turnbull, david [at]

Massive Oil Spill Endangers Central Valley Residents and Highlights State Agency’s Negligence in Protecting Community Health and Climate

MCKITTRICK, CA — As first reported by KQED, an oil spill even larger than the 2015 Plains All American Pipeline disaster occurred in Kern County. It spilled more than a half-million gallons of oil and wastewater into the surrounding area over the past two months.

Chevron first reported the spill to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on June 8. 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.

“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.”

“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.”

“Disasters like these are terribly dangerous yet utterly predictable,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “California’s industry-friendly oil regulator continues to provide about as much protection as a screen door on a submarine. Gov. Newsom can create a safer future for the state and the planet by reining in the state’s dirty fossil fuel production and infrastructure.”

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. 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.

“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 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.

“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.

“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.”

“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 leaks — or 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.”