Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking with reporters in western Kern after a tour of California's largest oil spill in years, withheld judgment on the incident Wednesday and said he must balance the state's low-carbon future with the needs of communities economically dependent on petroleum production.
Newsom's comments suggest he may try to steer a middle course, as his predecessor Jerry Brown did, even as he pushes California toward a low-carbon energy future.
The governor said he was encouraged to see Chevron is making progress in cleaning up the leak of about 900,000 gallons of black fluid, about a third of it oil, that has come to the surface intermittently near McKittrick since mid-May.
There is no evidence the event caused lasting environmental damage, he said, but it did endanger the lives of people working in the surrounding Cymric Oil Field.
Newsom said he would wait to hear what state officials determine to be the incident's cause. He pointed out industry leaders have descended upon the site to learn how they might work to avoid such accidents in the future.
Taking a line from oil industry defenders, the governor told reporters he drove to the site and that he flies a lot, adding he must be "held to account to that reality." He also mentioned that oil production is an industry that helped build California.
He also made reference to what he called a vigorous debate in Sacramento over how to regulate, or possibly ban, oil field techniques that environmental activists deem extreme and potentially damaging. He promised to continue to try to wean California off petroleum-based fuel but said it must be done responsibly, with "respect as well" for communities whose economies rely on oil.
"I want to begin that transition (away from petroleum) and I want to do it thoughtfully," he said.
The governor has taken recent steps that could be read as concessions to the state's increasingly anti-oil environmental lobby, such as the removal of California's top oil regulator earlier this month over apparent conflicts of interest among agency supervisors. Newsom has also budgeted $1.5 million in taxpayer money to study ways of reducing the state's oil supply and demand for it.
Chevron has preliminarily concluded the leak was caused by a broken well it was "re-abandoning," or resealing, when oil and water started to flow onto the ground in what the industry calls a "surface expression."
Surface expressions are not allowed in California, though they have happened many times in the history of Kern oil production.
San Ramon-based Chevron insists steam was not a factor in the leak. But as The Californian reported Sunday, observers reading from Chevron's own records say the company should not have been injecting steam at high pressure at the same time it had opened and was working on another well nearby.
California's acting oil and gas supervisor, Jason Marshall, expressed doubt Wednesday about Chevron's explanation. Although the company continues to gather and turn over a wealth of data about the leak, he said it "looks to me" like steam contributed to the problem. He emphasized he is not an engineer.
The agency Marshall oversees, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, has issued Chevron two notices of violation relating to the leak. It has also ordered the company to do everything possible to keep it from resuming its flow. Among the measures intended to accomplish that is a ban on injecting steam within a 1,200-foot radius of the leak.