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By Derek Catron, CAPITOL WEEKLY

August 21, 2019

https://capitolweekly.net/kern-spill-renews-oil-production-controversy/

California has long been a top producer of oil. But that may change.

Some hope that change will accelerate under Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has called for a decrease in the demand and supply of fossil fuels. A recent massive spill in Chevron’s Cymric oilfield in Kern County, about 35 miles west of Bakersfield, prompted  a major regulatory shakeup and could bolster that view.

The spill leaked intermittently off from May 10 to August 2, according to spokesman Eric Laughlin of the Unified Command, which is comprised of the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR; the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, Kern County Public Health Services Department, and Chevron USA, Inc.

Newsom was quick to reprimand DOGGR in the aftermath of the spill. The division is responsible for overseeing the petroleum industry.

When the leakage reportedly stopped, over 1.3 million gallons of crude oil and water mixture had spilled into a dry creek bed – making it one of the largest oil spills in state history.

Chevron used the steam injection method of oil extraction, a process comparable to a chemical-free version of fracking. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the high-pressure injection of liquids deep into the ground to open fissures in a search for petroleum.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Cleanup continues at the site of a surface expression of oil and water in Kern County. Crews have completed approximately 55 percent of work to remove oiled sediment in one division of the site.”

Newsom was quick to reprimand DOGGR in the aftermath of the spill. The division is responsible for overseeing the petroleum industry.

On July 10, the governor received a troubling letter about DOGGR from advocacy organizations Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.

The letter said, “DOGGR has already approved 2,365 permits for reworking and drilling new oil and gas wells and 191 fracking permits. DOGGR’s permit approval rate is now 30% faster than it was in 2018.  Of the 2,365 well permits issued under your Administration, 1,064 or 45% of them benefitted oil companies invested in by DOGGR officials.”

Newsom has said it isn’t legal for the governor of California to unilaterally ban fracking.

It ended with a call to action followed by a list of eight DOGGR officials and their financial ties to the oil industry.

Newsom wasted no time in firing the head of the division, Ken Harris, on July 11.

“I don’t think anyone that was paying attention, including the individual [Harris] that’s no longer there, is unaware of my position on fracking,” Newsom told reporters. “I’ve been very explicit about it. The fact that they did not exercise consistency with that is one of the reasons he’s not there.”

Adam Scow, a senior consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, commended the governor for his swift action.

He said in a press conference on July 12, “Governor Brown refused to take any action to curb drilling or fracking in this state. Thankfully, we have a new governor with a fresh attitude who is going to take a fresh approach to this problem, which is truly a public health problem as well as a climate problem.”

The new governor has been “explicit” about his desire to end controversial extraction methods like fracking – something his predecessor declined to do.

However, Newsom has said it isn’t legal for the governor of California to unilaterally ban fracking.

Through 2011, California’s petroleum wealth ranked third of the 50 states behind Texas and Alaska, according to Mining.Com

Kassie Siegel of the  Center for Biological Diversity disputed the governor’s claim in an email.

Siegel, the Center’s Law Institute director, wrote that She wrote, “Newsom has the power to ban fracking. The governor is likely getting bad information because the oil regulatory agency (“DOGGR”) he inherited is compromised by a revolving door and conflicts of interest with the oil industry. Officials that are supposed to be protecting our air, water and climate are instead rubber stamping permits for new oil wells and parroting industry talking points.”

Stanford Environmental Law Clinic Director Deborah A. Sivas, agrees with Siegel, noting in an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee, that “DOGGR’s existing legal authority allows the governor to just say ‘no’ to fracking and new extraction wells.”

With pressure mounting on the governor to uphold campaign promises, the oil industry and environmental activists are paying close attention.

Since 1985, California’s oil production has fallen 57 percent from approximately 394 million barrels a year to 169 million barrels last year – according to the Energy Information Administration.

Through 2011, California’s petroleum wealth ranked third of the 50 states behind Texas and Alaska, according to Mining.Com, which tracks the industry.

Activists would like to see that number fall to zero as soon as possible, but not everyone is so enthusiastic.

Republican Senate Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield has been critical of the governor’s recent moves. She expressed a need for consistency and chastised the governor for removing the state’s top oil regulator (Harris) “as a knee-jerk response to a radical environmentalist group’s unsubstantiated hit job”

Both sides of the state’s fracking and oil drilling debate await Newsom’s next move.