Christina Sistrunk, the former international oil executive who has led one of Bakersfield's largest petroleum producers during a rough five years for the industry, announced Tuesday she will retire from Aera Energy LLC at the end of September.

Sistrunk has been among the local industry's most visible leaders, speaking at public meetings to promote and defend oil production in the face of rising political and environmental opposition in California. She's also steered the company through two major price downturns.

She'll be succeeded by Erik Bartsch, who now serves as vice president of safety and environment, integrated gas and new energies at Shell Oil Co., Aera's co-owner along with ExxonMobil. He'll initially transition to Aera as chief operating officer and CEO designee before becoming the company's fourth president and CEO on Oct. 1.

Sistrunk, an accomplished executive who previously worked for Shell in high-profile positions in the Netherlands and elsewhere, offered praise for Aera's workforce in a news release issued Tuesday morning.

“I joined Aera and instantly knew I had found my work home. I have never worked for a company whose employees are just as passionate about their work as they are about the communities where we operate,” Sistrunk said. “It has been a great privilege to lead a company that truly cares about providing energy for California and prosperity for Californians. We continue to lead the way in delivering energy that meets the highest environmental and safety standards in the world. I couldn’t be prouder of our team.”

“The employees of Aera have become family to me,” she added. “My husband and I are fortunate to have spent five wonderful years in Bakersfield and we will cherish our memories always. It’s been the hallmark and highlight of my career.”

An Aera spokeswoman said Sistrunk intends to leave behind work life, having spent four decades in the industry, in favor of spending more time with her husband and their daughter. Sistrunk and her husband also hope to spend more time at the lake house they own in Mississippi and, when the time is right, do some traveling.

"Her husband, John, retired about three years ago and they began looking at when Christina would retire at that time," spokeswoman Cindy Pollard wrote by email. "This was a personal decision they made late last year as succession decisions for this role take a significant amount of time."

Pollard added that Sistrunk believes Aera’s success will continue "long after she’s gone because of the people and processes it has in place and its flexible and agile approach to running the business."

Shortly after taking the reins at Aera, about a year into one of the industry's most severe price collapses, Sistrunk instituted organizational changes credited with helping the company remain competitive amid low oil prices.

Aera's reputation as a desirable place to work grew during Sistrunk's tenure. The company was named to the Forbes America’s Best Midsize Employer’s list in 2019.

She's also been recognized by the National Diversity Council as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Oil and Gas. More recently she was named to Gov. Gavin Newsom's Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, which is providing guidance on economic development through the pandemic.

There have been challenges including recent cutbacks after oil prices fell sharply in late February. In early April the company said it slashed projects that would cost hundreds of contractors' jobs around the state.

Aera also pulled back recently from an expansion into Santa Barbara County that had been planned for about six years. Environmentalists who opposed the project hailed the company's retreat as a major victory.

Bartsch, a native Californian who expects to move with his wife and three children from the Netherlands to Bakersfield, started in the industry working in oil exploration as a geoscientist.

Trained in geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Colorado Boulder, he's been responsible for the safety performance of more than 50,000 workers at liquified natural gas plants, gas terminals and wind energy sites.

He also helped guide Shell's environmental agenda, including reducing the company's greenhouse-gas intensity.

“I’m honored to be joining the Aera family," Bartsch said in Tuesday's news release. "Aera has a tremendous reputation and rich history of both business excellence and community engagement."

"I share the company’s commitment to safety and responsible production and look forward to taking us to the next level,” he continued. “My family and I are looking forward to coming back to California and becoming a part of all the communities where Aera operates.”

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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