Chevron’s ongoing oil spill in the Cymric Oil Field, near McKittrick, has been occurring over the last two months and is a major threat to the environment. But it is best understood as a symptom of bigger issues in the oil and gas industry. As an environmental justice organizer in Kern County I see firsthand the need for Gov. Gavin Newsom to require transparency, accountability and community protections from the oil and gas industry, as well as more responsible oversight by the agencies tasked with regulating it.
On transparency, it is unacceptable that it took weeks before a spill of this size— nearly a million gallons of oil and contaminated water — was made public. Where was the notification to nearby communities in Kern County? The State Water Resources Control Board and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) knew about it for about two months before they informed the public. Communities like ours have a right to know when spills like this happen and what regulators are doing in response.
Real accountability means we should be able to trust that state agencies are enforcing the rules on the books that are designed to prevent threats to communities and the environment. So called “surface expressions,” like the Chevron spill, have been happening with frequency for decades near cyclic steam injection projects, an enhanced oil recovery method that is common in California. In April, new regulations on underground injection went into effect. They include provisions meant to prevent “surface expressions,” like this one. But is DOGGR enforcing these new rules? Are all injection operations in the state now complying with requirements that are supposed to prevent these accidents from happening? Based on this spill, the public should question this.
In 2011, a Chevron cyclic steam operation in the Midway Sunset oil field opened a surface expression that killed an oil field worker, Dave Taylor. For Chevron and other companies, these dangerous , and sometimes lethal, conditions are just a cost of doing business. In fact, Chevron can recover and sell the 320,000 gallons of oil that have seeped out of the ground, which based on today’s price of crude, is worth about $430,000. In fact, the deadly 2011 surface expression is still producing oil that Chevron can collect and sell. Companies that break the rules shouldn’t be allowed to profit off of their recklessness.
Oil spills, like this one, are just one of the many ways that the industry creates serious, long-term and avoidable harm to frontline communities and the environment. Despite mounting evidence of negative health impacts, oil companies are still allowed to drill new wells right next to where people live, work, go to school, worship and play. This means communities with oil drilling will continue to experience a host of health impacts, including increased risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, pre-term births and high-risk pregnancies and, in some cases, cancer. That’s why we need a mandatory 2,500-foot health and safety buffer from drilling.
Communities living near oil and gas infrastructure also face the threat of water contamination. California is one of the last major oil producing states to allow for the disposal of oil and gas wastewater by discharge into open, unlined pits, a practice that has contaminated groundwater in the Central Valley and in states across the country. Decades of failed enforcement of injection rules has meant that oil companies have pumped billions of barrels of wastewater and other fluids into underground sources of drinking water—the aquifers that communities rely on today and those that may serve as our future drinking and irrigation sources. Newsom’s loyalty should be to the people of California, not to the oil and gas industry. With more regulatory enforcement and oversight, the industry can and must do better — communities like mine depend on it.
Jesus Alonso is a Clean Water Action environmental justice organizer working in Kern County.