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Kern County's South Belridge Oil Field is among the most productive in California.

More than two dozen Kern County oil and steam-injection wells have been idled because of concerns they never received a proper regulatory review, state officials said Tuesday.

The 25 wells, located in the Belridge and the Midway-Sunset oil fields, are owned separately by Chevron Corp. and Berry Petroleum Co. LLC. Both companies said they have complied with the state's request to shut in the wells.

Senior staff at California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources said an investigation has been launched to determine why the wells were approved despite a lack of supporting documentation.

It remains unclear, they said, whether they were approved because of confusion stemming from new permitting rules that took effect April 1 or as a result of intentional misconduct.

The wells were shut in after a statewide permitting review sparked by the large oil and water leak at a Chevron operation near McKittrick. That leak took place in an area dominated by "cyclic steaming," a process in which wells alternate between steam injections and oil production.

The wells that were improperly permitted were also cyclic-steam wells, DOGGR said.

Cyclic-steam wells are supposed to be part of a wider review that can only be approved with what's known as a project approval letter. Such approvals require detailed studies of where oilfield steam can travel to under high-pressure, which is important for avoiding the kind of leaks that occurred near McKittrick.

Prior to April 1, DOGGR says, it was considered appropriate for cyclic-steam wells to receive "placeholder" permits that do not contain full back-up documentation. That's because such wells require more frequent testing than other facilities that are part of the same project, and the state had no easy way to keep track of the different testing schedules.

Even so, DOGGR said placeholder permits were only to be used when they linked to larger projects that contained fully documented state reviews.

Starting April 1, however, there has been no need for placeholder permits, DOGGR said, and so it is unclear why a senior agency engineer and at least one of that person's subordinates used them on the 25 wells in question.

San Ramon-based Chevron said by email it could not speak to DOGGR's administrative process for issuing permits. It asserted that all the wells it operates, including injection wells, were approved and permitted by the agency.

"We continue to operate these wells in accordance with the conditions set forth in our project permits and the law," the company stated. "Given the duration of our operations in California, we have injection projects and permits that were approved before the latest regulations that came into effect April 1, 2019. In some cases, the more recent permit conditions for injection wells are more extensive in anticipation of the recent changes in the law."

Chevron added it is committed to cooperate with DOGGR and operate in compliance with all legal requirements.

Berry, based in Bakersfield, said by email it is committed to operating in "compliance with all regulations and protecting our employees, the public and the environment."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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