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State expands steaming ban near fatal sinkhole after oil 'eruption' near Taft

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Following an "eruption" of petroleum and other fluids west of Taft Sunday, a second oil producer has been ordered to stop injecting steam near the sinkhole that killed a man June 21.

The emergency order issued Sunday is the clearest indication yet that the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources suspects a link between certain production technology used in the prodigious Midway-Sunset oil field, a specific well with a history of problems near the sinkhole site, and the death of 54-year-old Chevron Corp. construction representative Robert David Taylor.

"Ordering a temporary halt to production is never a step we take lightly, but injection cannot resume until we determine what is going on in this location," state Oil and Gas Supervisor Elena Miller, the head of DOGGR, said in a written statement Friday. "The fatality that occurred was a tragic incident and we haven't determined how the steam and oil is migrating to the surface at the site. The only things of which we are certain are that this is a hazardous situation and that there is a correlation between injection, fracturing, and the surface expressions (seepage) we're seeing."

DOGGR said in an email that no injuries occurred at Sunday's eruption, which it said culminated an increase of seeping activity that started two days earlier. The agency noted that it reported the incident to Cal-OSHA.

The company Miller ordered to stop steaming within 500 feet of Chevron's problem well, known as Well 20, is TRC Operating Co. Inc., a Taft-based producer that operates adjacent to Chevron at Midway-Sunset. DOGGR originally ordered TRC to stop steaming within 300 feet of Well 20 and another well in the area on July 19. But TRC appealed the order and was allowed to resume injections pending an administrative hearing. Sunday's order halts that activity.

TRC has repeatedly declined to return calls requesting comment about the situation at Well 20. On Friday a woman who answered the phone abruptly hung up when asked to take a message.

On July 5, Chevron was ordered to stop steam injection within 150 feet of Well 20. The radius was extended to 300 feet on July 28.

Chevron said in an email last month that it has not injected steam within 300 feet of Well 20 since December 2008.

State records show that Well 20, where Sunday's eruption took place, has a history of problems. Three times since 1997 Chevron has tried unsuccessfully to cap, or "abandon," the well because of uncontrolled seepage. The most recent attempt took place in 2008 at a cost the company has estimated at about $2 million.

Chevron has said that the well, drilled in 1936 at a depth greater than other wells still operating in Midway-Sunset, penetrates a fault zone. The company attributed its difficulties abandoning the well to seismic activity there, saying the pipe had been sheared as a result of ground movement.

A DOGGR regulator's 2008 handwritten note, included in the official state record of Well 20, refers to a Chevron employee's theory that the well bore is a "leak path" to surface seepage when other wells are injected with steam. The employee could not be reached for comment, and DOGGR has forbidden the regulator who wrote the note from speaking with The Californian.

Cal-OSHA, Chevron and DOGGR have launched separate investigations to determine what caused the sinkhole that opened up beneath Taylor as he and three other men were walking together in Midway-Sunset.

The county coroner's office has concluded that Taylor died due to accidental immersion in a sinkhole filled with oil field byproducts, even as it did not state what specifically killed him.

Last week, Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Taylor's family. The suit accuses Gene Watson Construction Inc. of negligence in grading work it did for Chevron last spring to address DOGGR's concerns about seepage near the fatal sinkhole. Gene Watson Construction has not responded to requests for comment.

The mitigation work Chevron undertook at the site involved a system of pipes and drains intended to collect oil and water that seeps to the surface during steam injection. DOGGR has emphasized that it did not review or specifically authorize the work.

Using a process it calls "cyclic steam stimulation," or "huff-and-puff," Chevron injects steam at high pressure into its wells at Midway-Sunset, then produces oil from the same wells. The steam serves more than one purpose: It heats and wets the area's diatomaceous earth in a way that allows oil to flow more readily. It also fractures the earth to create new pathways through which oil can be extracted.

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