Tag Archives: oil spill

Oil Companies Are Profiting From Illegal Spills. And California Lets Them.

A river of oil spills across the Cymric field near McKittrick, California, in June 2019 (Obtained by The Desert Sun and ProPublica via a Public Records Act request)

California may be a global leader on combating climate change, but state regulators have allowed companies like Chevron to make millions from inland oil spills that can endanger workers and damage the environment.

ProPublica, by Janet Wilson, The Desert Sun, and Lylla Younes, ProPublica, Sept. 18, 2020

In May 2019, workers in California’s Central Valley struggled to seal a broken oil well. It was one of thousands of aging wells that crowd the dusty foothills three hours from the coast, where Chevron and other companies inject steam at high pressure to loosen up heavy crude. Suddenly, oil shot out of the bare ground nearby.

Chevron corralled the oil in a dry streambed, and within days the flow petered out. But it resumed with a vengeance a month later. By July, a sticky, shimmering stream of crude and brine oozed through the steep ravine.

Workers and wildlife rescuers couldn’t immediately approach the site — it was 400 degrees underground, and if the earth exploded or gave way, they might be scalded or drown in boiling fluids. Dizzying, potentially toxic fumes filled the scorching summer air. Lights strobed through the night and propane cannons fired to ward off rare burrowing owls, tiny San Joaquin kit foxes, antelope squirrels and other wildlife.

An aerial view of the Chevron spill in the Cymric field on July 13, 2019. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

Over four months, more than 1.2 million gallons of oil and wastewater ran down the gully.

California had declared these dangerous inland spills illegal that spring. They are known as “surface expressions,” and the Cymric field was a hot spot. Half a dozen spills and a massive well blowout had occurred there since 1999. This time, faced with news headlines and a visit by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the site, officials with the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM — the main state agency overseeing the petroleum industry — ordered Chevron to stop the flow. Regulators later levied a $2.7 million fine on the company.

Instead, Chevron profited.

Amid the noise and heat, trucks arrived daily to vacuum out the oil from a safe distance. It was refined, sold and shipped to corner gas stations, bringing the company $399,000, according to state records. Chevron appealed the fine, saying while “we fully accept — and take responsibility for — our actions,” it does not believe the spill, known as Cymric 1Y, posed a threat to human health. The company has yet to pay, and CalGEM has not moved forward with an appeal hearing.

Along with being a global leader on addressing climate change, California is the seventh-largest producer of oil in the nation. And across some of its largest oil fields, companies have for decades turned spills into profits, garnering millions of dollars from surface expressions that can foul sensitive habitats and endanger workers, an investigation by The Desert Sun and ProPublica has found.

California Oil Spills Earn Companies Millions For years, companies have corralled spilling oil in four large fields and sold it. Shoshana Gordon/ProPublica. Source: California Department of Conservation

Since the new regulations outlawed surface expressions last year, more than two dozen have occurred in Kern County, the heart of the state’s oil industry. In the Cymric field, three spills are still running, state officials say, including one that’s spilled nearly twice as much as the one for which Chevron was fined.

Dozens of older spills have also flowed for years, the investigation found. The largest, just around the bend from Cymric 1Y, started in 2003. The site, also operated by Chevron and dubbed GS-5, has since produced more than 16.8 million gallons of oil and about 70 million gallons of wastewater, a company spokeswoman said. That tops the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, the infamous tanker that ran aground in Alaska in 1989. In the last three years alone, the crude collected from GS-5 has generated an estimated $11.6 million, according to an analysis of production data provided by the state.

Chevron and state regulators say they’re trying to shut down GS-5 and they have reduced the flow by 90%. It was spilling approximately 15,000 to 23,000 gallons of fluid a day in early February, the latest date for which the state provided detailed data. Ten to 15% of that was oil, officials said.

“We take our responsibility to operate safely and in a manner that protects public health, the communities where we operate and the environment very seriously,” company spokeswoman Veronica Flores-Paniagua said. “We remain committed to stopping and preventing seeps consistent with the updated state regulations.”

But a close review of the state’s new rules shows they contain several large loopholes that keep oil from surface expressions flowing — the result of years of lobbying and pushback by the energy industry.

Vacuum trucks suck thousands of gallons of oil and wastewater a day out of the GS-5 spill, near McKittrick. GS-5 is one of the largest and longest-running surface expressions. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

For example, over stiff opposition from environmentalists, state officials explicitly allowed high-pressure “steam fracking,” a controversial extraction technique that has been linked to surface expressions. And when spills break out, there is nothing stopping producers from turning them into moneymakers. In a practice known as “containment,” companies can corral the spills with dirt berms, netting, pipes or drains; vacuum out the crude; refine it and sell it. The 2019 regulations spell out steps companies must take to try to halt the spills — mainly temporarily ceasing steam injection — but there are no deadlines for stopping them and restoring the sites.

The new rules also largely exempt “low energy” surface expressions related to oil production. According to a review of state and local records, the exemption appears to cover more than 70 older spills that are still revenue generators.

A cache of internal documents, photos and video obtained by The Desert Sun and ProPublica shows that over the past quarter century, CalGEM has routinely allowed oil companies to contain and commercialize surface expressions, despite warnings by staffers about environmental and human harm. The agency acknowledges that more than 160 containment structures have been built to corral spills since the late 1990s.

The inland spills typically draw little attention, unlike major marine events that garner national headlines.

But hundreds of them have occurred, records show. Geysers of oil, rock and mud have shot skyward 100 feet, and slopes have collapsed under smoking waterfalls of crude and wastewater. In one case, a worker died; in another, an employee had to wrench his ankle away from a sudden sinkhole; and a third had to abandon his truck as a dark stain of oil mushroomed beneath it.

A Berry Petroleum Co. surface expression in the Midway-Sunset Oil Field in August 2011. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

“Keep in mind that these eruptions are not at well sites,” wrote then-Oil and Gas Supervisor Elena Miller in a 2011 email to her boss. “These are locations where the earth opens up and spews fluids, solids and gases.”

Oil company representatives defend their practices, saying surface expressions mirror natural seeps of crude and come with harvesting a product that provides thousands of well-paying jobs and fuels car-centric California. Containing the spills, they added, also costs money. Chevron, for instance, told lawmakers this year that it had spent $9 million to try to halt spills in the Cymric field.

Environmentalists who fought for the regulations are furious about the loopholes and the continued spills.

“It’s completely obscene that oil companies can cause an oil spill and then profit off it,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit organization.

CalGEM could not provide a full accounting of how much oil has spilled from surface expressions, even though the 2019 regulations explicitly require that oil companies report production numbers. The agency also declined to provide spill maps and plans mandated by the new rules, citing, in part, “multiple ongoing legal investigations,” including a departmental probe of the Cymric spills and ongoing litigation between Chevron and another company involving the field where the worker died.

“We are greatly reducing the problem. We continue to make progress, but more work is needed,” state Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk said in a statement. He noted that the practices had developed over decades, and that the new regulations were crafted under his predecessor and then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

“This Administration has made it clear that surface expressions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated as the cost of doing business,” he said.

After visiting Chevron’s Cymric 1Y spill site last year, Newsom pledged to “tighten things up.” In November, his administration placed a statewide moratorium on new permits for steam fracking, a suspected root cause of many surface expressions, and hired scientists with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to study whether the method can be used safely.

Ntuk said that while that review is in progress, the agency is cracking down. He has the power to fine companies $25,000 a day for ongoing spills. But other than the one, unpaid fine against Chevron, he has not imposed any financial penalties for surface expressions, instead issuing “notices of violation” — citations that Ntuk has compared to “parking tickets.” He said that approach is working; many spills have stopped and some companies are working proactively to seal abandoned, often damaged wells to prevent future spills.

Companies with existing permits, however, are free to keep steam fracking — and to scoop up any oil that cracks the surface.

Some experts say the current reality is reminiscent of the 19th-century oil rush.

“It reminds me of the industry back when you’re watching ‘There Will Be Blood’ and they used to let this stuff explode out of the ground and collect it,” said Deborah Gordon, a Brown University senior fellow, who researched California’s Midway-Sunset field, where many surface spills occur. Her group concluded it emitted more greenhouse gases than any oil field in the nation. “This is not where this industry needs to be.”

After 150 Years, California’s Oil Gets Harder to Extract

Oil production in California began in the 1850s, just as its famous gold rush was petering out. Tantalized by visible natural “seeps,” companies large and small drilled wells across the state, hoping to hit paydirt. While profits could be big, so could the spills.

In 1910, a Kern County wellhead blew out. Oil skyrocketed from the ground. Over 18 months, the Lakeview Gusher spilled 395 million gallons, creating a pool so deep and wide that men rowed boats across it. It still holds the record for the largest oil spill in U.S. history, dwarfing BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, which leaked 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

Top, the Lakeview Gusher in 1910. Above, men row on the lake of oil created by the spill. (San Joaquin Geological Society)

The California Division of Oil and Gas — the precursor to today’s CalGEM — was formed in 1915. Until this year, the agency’s primary mission was clear: Maximize the production of petroleum and other energy resources. That included helping companies relocate water that interfered with oil, both freshwater supplies and the briny waste that gushes from wells along with crude.

After decades of extraction, pumping California’s increasingly tarry reserves became tougher. Much of it was locked underground in diatomites — tightly packed layers of ancient, tiny sea skeletons whose algal innards compressed over milleniums into gooey crude. (Cat litter is made of diatomaceous earth scraped off Kern County hillsides.) By the 1960s, researchers discovered that flooding the subterranean reservoirs with steam or injecting it in cycles, through a process known as “huff and puff,” worked well.

The huff phase involves injecting scalding steam down wellbores, then letting the heat melt the tar. The puff portion refers to softened crude, thin as heated maple syrup, rising up through production wells. When the flow slows, another steam cycle begins. The technique is called “cyclic steaming.”

By the late 1990s, companies were using a supercharged version of it: steam fracking. Producers injected steam down well bores at pressures high enough to crack brittle underground formations so oil could ooze upward. Nearly half of the oil in the state is produced from cyclic steaming, according to a University of California, Berkeley, report issued in April.

But blasting old, often damaged wells with steam had an unintended side effect: surface expressions. Like underground tea kettles blowing their tops, seeps of gas, mud, oil and rock erupted in a dozen oil fields. Five companies reported scores of spills over more than 20 years. Chevron alone logged 64 surface expressions between 1997 and 2010, according to a report it sent to CalGEM.

Typically, CalGEM has told oil field operators to “shut in” wells near a surface expression, meaning temporarily cease nearby steam injection or drilling. Usually, the spill would stop or slow within days. If it didn’t, the agency has ordered them to stop steaming in an ever-larger radius. But some spots sprang leaks again and again or spilled large amounts for years. With CalGEM’s approval, companies turned these into de facto — but permanent — production sites, even in creeks and ravines supposedly protected by environmental laws.

CalGEM got revenue too — the agency is completely funded by the industry it regulates, and this year will receive 67 cents for every barrel of oil produced.

“The Earth Had Literally Cracked Open”

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican whose district includes Kern County oil fields, once called Sandy Creek a “ditch” and claimed it hadn’t rained there in 30 years. The creek, which in the 1800s ran miles from the Temblor Mountains to the then-vast Buena Vista Lake, is now dry most of the year.

But when winter rains fall, the creek flows. State biologists documented sections that are home to breeding western toads, cliff swallows, California quail, kildeer and other birds passing through on long migrations.

In 1998, near Sandy Creek’s headwaters, Aera Energy and two other companies began injecting steam into wells in the soft dirt. A web of surface expressions quickly developed, with continuous oil pools forming in the streambed. They’re still flowing 22 years later.

Rather than shutting down production, Aera reshaped the landscape. It installed a 400-foot-long metal pipe, diverting rainwater from its natural path so the crude could continue to flow into the creekbed. Although the spills were still running, they were considered contained; the oil was confined to open-air pools. Nets were slung over them to prevent birds from flying in.

Aera and TRC, another oil company that leased adjoining property, periodically pumped out the oil and sold it. State oil regulators later said in an internal report that Aera was producing about 3,000 gallons of crude and waste a day from Sandy Creek.

Under state laws, it’s illegal to discharge any hazardous substance into a creek or streambed, dry or not. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which enforces those laws, said it can issue temporary permits for cleanup activities, but not for permanent alterations of a streambed. “The Department sees oil spills as emergencies, and its role is to respond to minimize harm to wildlife and clean up ASAP,” a spokesman told The Desert Sun and ProPublica. The department did not respond to questions about whether it has ever cited or fined companies that have spilled oil and altered the streambed in Sandy Creek.

TRC did not respond to requests for comment. Aera, which has since sold its Sandy Creek leases, declined to comment on past surface expressions there, but it said in a statement that the company “uses a combination of innovation, engineering, and technology to ensure that we are producing California’s energy under the most environmentally responsible and safe conditions in the world.”

The containment approach wasn’t foolproof.

In fall 2010, heavy rains sparked flash floods, dismembering the metal culvert. Days before Christmas, rains fell again. The creek reclaimed its natural channel, shoving crude and wastewater 10 miles downstream, through the town of Taft and out the other end.

The aftermath of flash floods in Sandy Creek, where Aera had installed a metal culvert to divert rainwater from its natural path. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

Bruce Joab, a California Fish and Wildlife senior scientist who assesses the environmental damage wreaked by oil spills, still recalls Sandy Creek after the storms.

“I was actually shocked at how torn up that upper end of the watershed was,” Joab said. Rusted pipes, steam manifolds and other heavy debris littered the bed. “It was hard to distinguish where the creek began and the oil operation began.”

Field warden colleagues who’d seen many surface expressions warned him to watch his step.

“There were places where the earth had literally cracked open and oil was spilling out,” he recalled.

When spills occur, CalGEM employees work side by side with oil companies to investigate the causes. Chevron officials, for instance, were part of the team that responded to and probed the causes of last summer’s Cymric 1Y spill. Ntuk said that approach is required by state law.

In Sandy Creek, a CalGEM staffer documented the flood damage and spills with dozens of photographs and said in a lengthy report to supervisors that the surface expressions there were caused by steam operations. CalGEM, however, did not include Sandy Creek in a tally of surface expressions it provided to The Desert Sun and ProPublica, saying the situation is “still under evaluation and has not yet been categorized.” CalGEM provided no evidence it has ever cited or fined companies for damage after the 2010 floods or after more oily floods in 2016.

Sandy Creek is just one place where companies have constructed elaborate containment structures.

They can carry a heavy cost.

A Tragedy at Well 20

Well 20 in the Midway-Sunset field was drilled in 1927 and abandoned by Chevron in the 1980s. The company tried and failed to plug it three times. By 2011, surface expressions had broken out there regularly, and CalGEM had cited the company twice for oil field waste, though it wasn’t fined.

Chevron installed a large, underground containment system — a channel with perforated drains at either end — and added devices called tilt meters to record any sudden shifts in formations beneath the surface to give warning above. The tools typically monitor volcanoes and dams for seismic activity.

On the morning of June 21, 2011, Robert “Dave” Taylor and two Chevron colleagues went to the freshly graded site in response to a report of steam coming from the ground.

Taylor had worked in the Kern County oil fields for 33 years, starting as a low-paid “roustabout” and working his way up to construction representative. In Taft, where he grew up and raised his family, he was a soft-spoken but beloved coach of high school and community sports teams. Years later, people in town still called him “Coach.”

Robert “Dave” Taylor. (Bakersfield Californian)

That June morning, the field at Well 20 looked smooth, per oil and gas agency rules. But underneath, pressure was building. Tilt meters had shown sharp shifts in ground movement, though no one seemed to notice.

As the three men walked across the site, a sinkhole of hot oil and hydrogen sulfide opened beneath Taylor’s feet and swallowed him. One of the other men reached into the hole and tried to grab his arm, with no luck. He then tried to use a pipe, but Taylor was gone.

Taylor’s family drove north from their home in Taft, thinking there might be a chance he’d survived. They were greeted by a geyser of steam as tall as a telephone pole shooting out of the hole. It took workers until shortly before dawn the next day to retrieve Taylor’s body. He was 54.

Chevron spokeswoman Flores-Paniagua called Taylor’s death “a tragic and isolated incident.”

The oil and gas agency ordered Chevron and TRC to stop nearby steam injection in an ever-widening radius. It did little good. The spill swelled. Top officials began probing more deeply and told staffers to compile a “spill binder” of fields around Bakersfield, the seat of Kern County. According to the binder, which was obtained by The Desert Sun and ProPublica, they logged 19 more surface expressions in five months.

Shortly after Taylor’s death, the ground shook a few miles north and a 60-foot geyser blew skyward. A Berry Petroleum Co. worker fled as a fast-moving surface expression mushroomed under his truck, internal CalGEM documents show.

”In this week’s event, a field worker narrowly escaped injury or death by running away from the site on foot,” wrote Miller, then the oil and gas supervisor, in an email to her boss, obtained through a public records request. “He abandoned his truck which was still parked at the site two days later as it was too dangerous to re-enter.”

By autumn, a slope above the site where Taylor died had collapsed into a bubbling cauldron of oil and toxic gases.

Inside Chevron, Taylor’s death was taken seriously, said Lucinda Jackson, who headed the company’s global safety, health and environment division until she retired in 2016.

She said company geologists had told her as long as they steamed in diatomite in California, Indonesia and elsewhere, surface expressions would occur. Several studies support this conclusion, which is an active area of research.

Taylor’s death was “horrible,” she said. Her division doubled down on monitoring and detection efforts. Daily small plane flights using remote sensors were instituted. When she retired, there was a continuous, remote monitoring station in Bakersfield, 40 minutes away, tracking the company’s Kern County fields. Dozens of screens recorded underground formations for any sudden shifts.

“Nobody likes these surface expressions,” she added. “They disrupt production and they’re bad for human health and the environment. But it’s just going to be an issue as long as we’re going to keep producing, if the world is still thirsty for oil.”

Taylor’s family was barred from suing Chevron because of his employment contract but reached a settlement with the company that had done the grading work over the spill containment site. California’s workplace safety agency, Cal-OSHA, cleared Chevron in its investigation of Taylor’s death, but it later fined the company $350, the maximum allowed by law, for not informing workers in writing of the “necessary safeguards” for working near Well 20.

Although CalGEM says Chevron has now successfully plugged and abandoned Well 20, the company told the agency it was still producing oil from a nearby surface expression. In the past month, it has pumped an average of nearly 1,400 gallons of oil and brine a day out of a cistern it installed there.

The Fight for Regulation

In Sacramento, Elena Miller, the oil and gas supervisor, and her deputies had started drafting surface expression regulations along with other reforms. But oil companies pushed back, complaining that she was causing unnecessary permitting delays. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown fired Miller in the fall of 2011 as he sought to revive California’s sluggish economy. New permits were quickly approved.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, worried about enforcement of groundwater laws in California oil fields, had been conducting a probe of how CalGEM regulated underground injection. Among its top concerns: oil producers and the agency were not properly testing or tracking injection pressures, which if too high could fracture underground formations. A top EPA official told CalGEM that federal and state laws barred pressure that could crack formations.

Oil and steam pipelines crisscross the oil fields in Kern County, California. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

CalGEM officials said they’d revamp their regulations, but the effort took years.

Ntuk, the current oil and gas supervisor, said that prior to 2019, state regulations did not explicitly limit steam injection. Kretzmann, an environmental attorney who’s tracked the agency and injection laws for years, said Ntuk’s position was “absurd.”

As the spills continued, agency leaders in 2015 realized there was another long-standing issue: no formal training for the geologists, engineers and supervisors involved in permitting and oversight.

“The training that is provided is informal and ‘passed down’ from other regulatory staff, sometimes even new staff train newer staff, and provide ‘best practice’ training,” officials wrote in a request to lawmakers, asking for funding to implement a comprehensive training program. “This method of training is not standardized, it is not measurable, and it is extremely challenging to establish accountability for errors in the field.”

Since then, CalGEM has received funding for additional engineers and geologists and instituted a training program, although turnover at the agency is high.

Risky Business

As Taylor’s death showed, surface expressions can be dangerous. Experts say oil constantly spilling to the surface also releases fresh volatile organic compounds that are building blocks for smog and other dangerous pollution linked to heart disease, asthma and other health problems. Two new studies of pregnant women living close to California oil fields show far higher rates of premature births and low-birth-weight babies.

“Every time you push oil through an open pathway to the surface, it’s like opening a bottle of soda,” said Donald Blake, a University of California, Irvine, atmospheric chemist who has tracked air pollutants around the world, including in Kern County.

Studies of oil spill cleanup workers and nearby residents in six countries all showed they experienced higher rates of illness, ranging from sore throats to respiratory disease and cancer.

There are more immediate risks for workers too.

Workers clean up a surface expression in October 2011 in a Kern County oil field, where Berry Petroleum operated. Oil spills can pose long- and short-term health risks for workers. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

According to internal documents, CalGEM inspectors in 2014 mapped a 1¼-mile-long zone in the Midway-Sunset field, then co-owned by Chevron and Aera Energy. Vents in the rocks and ground were releasing more than 500 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide — levels that could cause humans to stagger and collapse within five minutes. Failed wellbores there were emitting up to 7,000 parts per million, more than three times the threshold for immediate death, according to guidelines of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. An internal CalGEM memo stated the area was “permanently secured.” Neither the agency nor Aera responded to requests for comment about the zone’s current status.

Chevron’s spokeswoman said in an email that the company “took several steps to secure the property” and mitigate the risk of hydrogen sulfide. Chevron sold the property in March, she said.

CalGEM staff in the Bakersfield office conducted many in-depth inspections of spill sites and wrote reports documenting them for superiors. A 2015 PowerPoint presentation they prepared, obtained by The Desert Sun and ProPublica, stated that some of the diatomite formations might have been permanently altered by steam fracking, meaning spills there might never stop. But, the presentation concluded, there was little impetus for oil companies to change their ways: “The economic benefit of increased oil … production from steam injection into shallow diatomite … has been, and will continue to be motivation for operators.”

Employees familiar with the spills pushed for stricter regulation. Without it, they said, “surface expressions will remain a potential threat.”

“We Didn’t Know What to Do”

To the west, Santa Barbara County officials had already grappled with the consequences of surface expressions. Known for its scenic beaches, the area is also home to nearly a dozen oil fields.

In 2007, Breitburn Energy began injecting steam into the diatomite-rich Orcutt field, half an hour inland from Pismo Beach. Oil cracked the surface and the company contained it and harvested more than 4.8 million gallons of oil from “cyclic steam energized seeps,” according to CalGEM’s 2008 and 2009 annual reports. Using federal prices for California oil for those years, that would mean they earned an estimated $7.3 million. Breitburn later went bankrupt.

Pacific Coast Energy Corp. took over the Orcutt field in 2009 and sharply increased cyclic steaming. The number of new spills spiked.

“We had spill after spill after spill after spill,” said Errin Briggs, of the Planning and Development Department in Santa Barbara County, which, like Long Beach, Los Angeles and Kern County, works with the state to oversee oil operators. County officials were stumped, and they reached out to CalGEM. According to Briggs, engineers at the oil agency said that the steam being injected into the diatomite was causing it to swell like a balloon, placing pressure on the formation above, which sprang myriad leaks.

Short cisterns, like this one pictured on a Berry Petroleum lease in the Midway-Sunset field, are used to contain oil spills. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

In 2011, CalGEM ordered Pacific Coast Energy to lower the amount of steam it was injecting, Briggs said. The number of new spills was halved over the next few years, he said. Neither a company executive nor CalGEM responded to requests for comment on those measures.

To contain the spills, Pacific Coast Energy installed wide, short cisterns, or “cans,” stuck into the earth like straws, from which frothy water and oil can be vacuumed. Unlike many Kern County containment devices, these are sealed with large, garbage can-style tops with handles that can be hoisted open by pump trucks.

County officials signed off on the construction after the fact. “Nobody in Santa Barbara had ever seen anything like this before,” Briggs said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

There are currently 58 ongoing contained spills in the Orcutt field, Briggs said. CalGEM did not respond to requests for information on the Orcutt spills for months, then said there are even more — 65 “low energy surface expressions.”

Environmentalists were stunned that companies were allowed to profit off the contained spills.

“Wow. Wow! Wow! And we didn’t even know it. That’s just crazy,” said Katie Davis, chair of the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter covering Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. “If they’re tapping them for oil, and they’re not even legitimate wells, it’s really going around the law.”

A CalGEM spokesman said in an email that under the new regulations, “for low-energy expressions, containment … is permissible.”

A dead Western harvest mouse found by the GS-5 surface expression near McKittrick. (Pacific Wildlife Center staff. Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

Because the spills were considered emergencies, there was no requirement to do environmental reviews before installing the cisterns, Briggs said. That means large coast live oak, rare flowering bushes and other plants could be ripped out when necessary. Remains of Chumash tribal life could also be moved. The company did have to pay to plant restoration trees and vegetation elsewhere on the oil field.

State wildlife officials have long been concerned about the impact of surface expressions on an array of endangered animals and plants. California Fish and Wildlife records obtained through a public records request show dozens of dead and decaying birds and small mammals around spill sites.

In places like Sandy Creek, the nets oil companies place over spills to protect wildlife often get tangled or torn, said Julie Vance, Fish and Wildlife’s District 4 director in Fresno, who oversaw response to inland spills for years. Many burrow-dwelling creatures are “entombed” by fast-rising crude from underground, making it impossible to ever document their loss, she said.

Netting covers a surface expression near Sandy Creek to protect wildlife. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun via a Public Records Act request)

For years, Fish and Wildlife deferred to CalGEM, but the wildlife agency has increasingly played a role in spill response since 2014, after policymakers expanded its mandate to include inland as well as marine spills, and as the oil agency came under growing scrutiny.

Loopholes: “Low Energy” Spills Permitted, Containment Allowed

In the fall of 2015, the California Department of Conservation announced a “renewal” plan to overhaul the state’s oil agency.

Among its priorities: writing new rules for cyclic steaming. In the four years since Taylor’s death, 63 surface expressions had broken out in the Kern County oil fields, according to state records. The department pledged to finalize the regulations in a little more than a year.

But the deadline came and went as special interests on various sides lobbied to influence the regulations. Environmentalists won language banning surface expressions. Several oil companies and trade groups pushed back, asking for a narrow definition of what constituted a spill.

In response, CalGEM exempted from the ban what it called “low energy seeps,” defined, in part, as slower spills that are not hot and are permanently contained. What qualifies as such a seep is left up to the oil and gas supervisor. The carveout appears to preserve a lucrative form of spill.

A recent thesis by a Stanford University master’s student identified 19 such “low energy” sites in the Midway-Sunset field, where spills were contained with cisterns. An analysis of production records by The Desert Sun and ProPublica found that over the past 20 years, 14 of those sites have spilled a combined 20 million gallons of oil, worth more than $19 million.

“I sure would call that a loophole in the law,” said Rosanna Esparza, a retired gerontologist who did health assessments of residents near Kern County oil operations and who is fighting to cease oil production statewide.

The Western States Petroleum Association, the industry trade group representing major companies like Chevron, pressed to nix the spill prohibition altogether and just preserve the longtime practice of containment.

“There is an inherent conflict created by prohibiting surface expressions yet allowing for management methods,” WSPA wrote in a letter to CalGEM. “The strict prohibition should be dropped in favor of language that provides for prudent management when events occur.”

In response, CalGEM staff defended the proposed ban on surface expressions “because they are inherently unsafe.” But they also provided an opening for containment. “Even when a violation has been committed,” the agency replied, “there are still protocols to safely handle that violation.”

The regulations took effect in April 2019.

Within months, more than a dozen surface expressions occurred, including Chevron’s latest Cymric spills. In short order, the Newsom administration announced the moratorium on new steam fracking permits and moved to bolster CalGEM. The governor’s January budget proposed 128 new positions for the agency, in part to better oversee surface expressions. Under state law, which requires potential polluters to fund oversight, the oil industry would have to pay $24 million over three years for the positions.

The Tug of War Continues
Oil infrastructure in the Kern River oil field near Bakersfield, California. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

The permitting pause sent shocks through the oil industry, and Kern County responded with a full-throated roar.

Hundreds packed the county supervisors’ chambers in Bakersfield in January for a meeting that lasted nearly seven hours. Oil workers and executives testified about the jobs that supported their families, and they lambasted “environmental extremists” and state officials.

Union officials, real estate agents, Chamber of Commerce members, the county sheriff, the district attorney and even the county school superintendent spoke about how vital oil revenues are to the area.

County supervisors led the charge.

“Rather than the governor giving us credit for our monumental achievements … he insists on punishing us by attempting to deny our right to use the God-given natural resources in our county to support our families,” said Supervisor Zack Scrivner, whose sprawling district includes Taft and several oil fields.

Scrivner showed photos of oil spills in Brazilian rainforests and a river in Colombia. This is a river full of oil, and I would offer that this is worse than a surface expression that the governor came down here to visit recently,” he said. “Why would this administration … send our jobs and our treasure to these countries with terrible human rights records, and with little to no environmental controls?”

No photos of the Sandy Creek spills or the Cymric ravine flooded with oil were shown.

Anthony Williams, Newsom’s legislative affairs secretary at the time, sought to reassure the crowd, saying he had grown up in Bakersfield. “I talk to the governor every single day,” he said, “and so when my voice rings in his ear, your voice rings in his ear.”

Elsewhere, in the agricultural communities around Bakersfield, farmers and environmental justice groups worried.

Some, who have long lived near oil operations in the Central Valley, disagreed with the industry and its supporters. The spills not only threatened the surface, they argued, but the water table — and the people and crops that rely on it.

Tom Frantz, a fourth-generation farmer and activist from Shafter, began monitoring the Cymric surface expressions himself a year ago, sending a drone into the air for timely updates. He watched oil spill into the ravine there, month after month, before CalGEM issued the fine against Chevron. Since that one was stopped, he’s been tracking the company’s even bigger spills that are still running.

Last November, after Chevron mopped up the Cymric 1Y flow, another cluster of surface expressions sprouted nearby. Dubbed 36W, it has since gushed more than 2.1 million gallons of oil and wastewater, according to Chevron reports filed to the state, and is being piped into large concrete culverts.

Chevron’s spokeswoman said in an email that it’s part of an older spill, even though state photos and reports show them as separate events. Since late March, an analysis by The Desert Sun and ProPublica found, the 36W cluster has garnered the company an estimated $245,000.

“They’re a huge source of air pollution, a huge potential source of water pollution,” Frantz said of the spills. “When I see Chevron directly violating the law for months on end, it bothers me greatly that the state is unable to effectively regulate this industry.”

Fourth-generation farmer Tom Frantz says oil waste has stunted a neighbor’s almond trees. (Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Chevron denies its surface expressions have had any effect on groundwater.

By March, the coronavirus pandemic hit. The global oil market collapsed and California producers idled rigs, costing thousands of oil workers their livelihoods. Citing economic hardship, the industry asked the Newsom administration to scale back CalGEM’s expansion.

In the end, Newsom and lawmakers approved 25 new positions, a fifth of the agency’s original request. “Rest assured that CalGEM continues to ensure full regulatory oversight,” Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot told reporters this year.

State and regional water officials are also stepping in, increasingly trying to stanch surface expressions. Clayton Rodgers, assistant executive officer for Central California’s water board, said his agency had for years let CalGEM take the lead. “Based on the resources we had and the belief that (CalGEM) was doing the work to address the concerns, we did not get involved,” he said.

Last year, he and his deputy toured Chevron’s spill in the Cymric field. But he said he was unaware of the massive GS-5 spill located 1,000 feet away until a Desert Sun reporter asked him about it. One of his inspectors visited the site the next day and opened an investigation into potential violations of water laws.

A truck vacuums up oil from a surface expression in the Cymric field. (Obtained by ProPublica and The Desert Sun)

The regional water board is also monitoring Sandy Creek, the site of the streambed disaster. Berry Petroleum gained ownership of Aera’s stretch in 2017, and water board inspectors have cited the company for violating water contamination laws. Berry first told the inspectors the spills were natural seeps, but it has since voluntarily removed major rusted pipes and other debris, and has plugged and abandoned 10 nearby wells.

Berry injects no steam there, but two companies nearby still do, and the spills continue to flow. Berry has a proposal: It wants to build a channel to carry seasonal rains over the oil pools — just like Aera did 20 years ago. The efforts “are driven by our commitment to operate responsibly and protect our natural resources,” said Todd Crabtree, Berry’s manager of investor relations and administration. “Berry strives to abide by all existing California regulations regarding oil and gas production,” including the new regulations.

Overall, the rate of new inland spills has slowed, possibly due to lower production, said Gordon, the Brown University expert. But if steam fracking picks up, so could the surface expressions, she said.

Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of WSPA, said she and other oil executives speak regularly with Newsom and CalGEM. She said the industry supports Newsom’s “pragmatic” approach to surface expressions, which includes the ongoing study of steam fracking.

“Let’s be clear,” she said. “The best way to get oil to market is not through surface expressions.”

The governor’s office declined to comment. Asked if it was considering changes to the regulations, CalGEM said “it is premature to say what new rules, if any, will result from current surface expressions or the scientific review.”

The spills have been completely halted elsewhere. After reports about “flow to surface” spills from heavy tar sands in Alberta, Canada, regulators there determined that excessive steaming volumes in the Primrose field — combined with open conduits from below ground, such as wellbores, natural faults and induced fractures — were to blame.

In 2016, the Canadian officials banned steam fracking within 1,000 meters —- or about 3,300 feet — of where the spills had occurred. That’s five times the maximum radius California spells out in its regulations, though CalGEM can impose larger ones if a surface expression continues.

Alberta also instituted strict protocols for nearby steaming.

There hasn’t been a surface expression there since.


About the Data

Data for surface expression oil volume estimates was provided by Chevron, the ​​​​​California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Revenue calculations used monthly California oil barrel price averages from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Since those averages are currently only recorded through June 2020, revenue calculations for 2020 averaged oil barrel prices for the first six months of the year. Given that oil prices steeply declined for a period in March and then slowly increased in the following months, the resulting revenue estimates are likely undercounts. Low-energy seep revenue estimates used monthly well production data from CalGEM’s Well Search database, weekly summary files and CalGEM annual reports.

Janet Wilson is the senior environment reporter at The Desert Sun. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where she wrote about everything from desert wind power battles to the sale of national forest lands and poor neighborhoods grappling with deadly soot.

Critics say oil train report underestimates risk

Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review
[Editor:  Oh…this sounds SO familiar….  Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state.  – RS]

Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk

By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo, train cars carrying flammable liquids heads west through downtown Spokane, Wash. | Dan Pelle photo

The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.

Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.

But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.

The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.

That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.

Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”

To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”

And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.

Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.

The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.

A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.

The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.

The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.

Report used data on hazardous materials spills

Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.

But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.

Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.

Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.

Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.

Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”

According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.

Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.

“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”

Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’

The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.

In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.

“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.

Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.

Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.

“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”

Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.

“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”

Governor has the final say

Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.

Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.

Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.

In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.

“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

Repost from The Oregonian / OregonLive
[Editor:  The consultant’s connections with BNSF were noted nearly a month ago here and in Curtis Tate’s McClatchy DC report.  On November 24 Tate wrote, “The rail spill analysis portion of the Washington state draft document was written in part by three consultants who are former employees of BNSF and its predecessor, Burlington Northern. In addition to the state agency for which they prepared the analysis, their clients include BNSF and the Port of Vancouver.”  I  understand that the Washington agency that hired the consultant, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, was asked about the possible conflict of interest in advance of publication of Tate’s article, but they never got back to him.  Staff at the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council should have been aware well in advance of the Oregonian story.  – RS]

Washington regulator unaware of oil train consultant’s connections

By Rob Davis, Dec. 17, 2015, updated Dec.18, 2015 9:44 AM
vancouver oil train
An oil train parked outside Vancouver, Wash., in 2014. A terminal proposed there would bring four oil trains to the city each day. (Rob Davis/Staff)

A consulting firm that helped write a report underestimating the risks of catastrophic spills from a proposed Vancouver oil train terminal has worked for two groups that will gain financially if the project moves forward.

Stephen Posner, the Washington energy regulator who approved the company’s hiring, didn’t know about all those connections until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him. But he did not answer repeated questions about whether he would investigate further.

Three of the four authors who wrote the risk analysis for Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council are former executives of BNSF Railway Co. The railroad would move oil trains to the Vancouver terminal.

The authors’ company, MainLine Management, lists BNSF as a client on its website.

MainLine, which didn’t respond to repeated queries, recently worked for another project supporter: the Port of Vancouver, which owns the land where the terminal would be built.

Much remains unclear about MainLine’s relationships with BNSF and the port. It is not known whether BNSF is a current MainLine client. It’s also unclear whether MainLine’s past work for the port would constitute a conflict.

Washington law prohibits the energy council from hiring consultants with a significant conflict of interest with a project’s applicant or others involved.

MainLine finished its work for the port before it was hired to analyze the terminal. The port awarded a $121,000 contract to MainLine in April 2013 to analyze part of its freight rail system serving the oil train terminal. A port spokeswoman said the final payment was sent to MainLine Sept. 25, 2014, four months before the firm was hired to analyze oil spill risks.

The relationships raise questions about the thoroughness of Washington’s review of the experts it’s using to independently evaluate the Vancouver oil terminal.

The $210 million terminal proposed by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Services is the highest profile project pending before the Washington energy council.

The small agency is designed to be a one-stop permitting shop for major energy projects, studying their impacts and recommending a decision to Gov. Jay Inslee. The governor has final approval.

Posner, the agency’s manager, approved hiring MainLine. He said he was unaware the firm listed BNSF as a client until The Oregonian/OregonLive told him.

But neither Posner nor an agency spokeswoman, Amanda Maxwell, would commit to inquiring further about whether the company has a current connection with BNSF.

Before MainLine was hired, Posner said he discussed the company with Washington’s lead consultant, Cardno. He said his agency relied on Cardno to vet MainLine’s clients and past work.

How did Cardno review MainLine’s potential conflicts? That’s unclear. Posner told The Oregonian/OregonLive to direct that question to Cardno, which didn’t immediately respond.

Cardno has provided written assurance that its subcontractors, including MainLine, are forbidden to discuss the terminal with any outside party, Maxwell said.

“This written assurance provided by Cardno is the basis for trusting in the credibility of the work being performed,” she said.

When we asked Posner whether he was concerned that MainLine could have a conflict, the spokeswoman, Maxwell, interrupted, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.

“Without having the information, it’s not something he could put in context,” she said.

The agency should have that knowledge and be able to answer such a question, said Robert Stern, a good government advocate who helped write California’s post-Watergate conflict of interest law. He said the energy agency’s review appeared inadequate.

“Maybe they don’t have any conflicts, but how do you know?” Stern said. “There should be something in writing saying we have no conflicts of interest.”

Both BNSF and the Port of Vancouver stand to benefit financially from the project’s construction. The port estimates netting $45 million in lease revenue from the project over 10 years. BNSF has rallied supporters to send comments to the energy council praising the project, saying its construction would strengthen the rail company’s customer base.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, didn’t specifically answer a question about whether MainLine is currently under contract with the railroad.

“BNSF does not discuss specific relationships involving contract companies,” Melonas said by email, “however MainLine Management Inc. has worked with Northwest agencies providing modeling on rail related projects.”

If built, the Vancouver project would be the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal, capable of unloading 15 million gallons of oil from four trains daily. The oil would be put on barges and sent to coastal refineries.

It has drawn strong opposition from Vancouver elected officials and environmental groups amidst a string of fiery oil train explosions nationwide since 2013.

The report co-authored by MainLine lowballed those risks. It called a 2013 oil train spill in Aliceville, Alabama the worst on record, using it to analyze impacts of a disaster in the Pacific Northwest. The study said a slightly larger spill is “the most credible or realistic” worst-case scenario.

But a far larger spill has already happened. An out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Quebec in July 2013, fueling a raging inferno that killed 47 people and leveled part of a small Canadian town.

The analysis incorrectly said the Quebec accident spilled just 36,000 gallons of crude. Far more did. Canadian safety regulators concluded 1.5 million gallons escaped from tank cars. Much of it burned in the resulting fire.

Just a third as much oil spilled in the Alabama accident.

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

Repost from Circle of Blue

U.S. Not Prepared for Tar Sands Oil Spills, National Study Finds

By Codi Kozacek, Circle of Blue, 10 December, 2015 16:07

Report urges new regulations, research, and technology to respond to spills of diluted bitumen.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
Oil gathers in a sheen near the banks of the Kalamazoo River more than a week after a spill of crude oil, including tar sands oil, from Enbridge Inc.’s Line 6B pipeline in 2010. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy Sam LaSusa

Spills of heavy crude oil from western Canada’s tar sands are more difficult to clean up than other types of conventional oil, particularly if the spill occurs in water, a new study by a high-level committee of experts found. Moreover, current regulations governing emergency response plans for oil spills in the United States are inadequate to address spills of tar sands oil.

The study by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed what scientists, emergency responders, and conservationists knew anecdotally from a major oil spill that contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 and another spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013. Tar sands crude, called diluted bitumen, becomes denser and stickier than other types of oil after it spills from a pipeline, sinking to the bottom of rivers, lakes, and estuaries and coating vegetation instead of floating on top of the water.


“[Diluted bitumen] weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.”

–Diane McKnight, Chair 
Committee on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment


“The long-term risk associated with the weathered bitumen is the potential for that [oil] becoming submerged and sinking into water bodies where it gets into the sediments,” Diane McKnight, chair of the committee that produced the study and a professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Circle of Blue. “And then those sediments can become resuspended and move further downstream and have consequences not only at the ecosystem level but also in terms of water supply.”
“It weathers to a denser material, and it’s stickier, and that’s a problem. It’s a distinct problem that makes it different from other crude.” McKnight added. Weathering is what happens after oil is spilled and exposed to sunlight, water, and other elements. In order to flow through pipelines, tar sands crude oil is mixed with lighter oils, which evaporate during the weathering process. In a matter of days, what is left of the diluted bitumen can sink.

The study’s findings come amid an expansion in unconventional fuels development and transport in North America. Over the past decade, Canada became the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer by developing the Alberta tar sands. U.S. imports of Canadian crude, much of it from tar sands, increased 58 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Though oil prices are at a seven-year low, and market turbulence is expected to persist for several more years, tar sands developers are working to double the current tar sands oil production — around 2.2 million barrels per day — by 2030. Pipelines to transport all of the new oil are expanding too, producing a greater risk of spills.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
A sign held by a protester at a 2013 climate rally in Washington, D.C. notes the lingering difficulties associated with spills of diluted bitumen –namely that the oil can become submerged in the water. Click image to enlarge. Photo courtesy DCErica via Flickr Creative Commons

Whether tar sands producers achieve that level of oil supply is not assured. Public pressure is mounting in Canada and the United States to rein in tar sands development due to considerable environmental damage and heavy carbon emissions. U.S. President Barack Obama last month scrapped the Keystone XL pipeline, an 800,000-barrel-per-day project to move crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf of Mexico refineries. An international movement to divest from fossil fuels and a legally binding global deal to cut carbon emissions –if it is signed in Paris– could curb demand for tar sands oil.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study adds new data to arguments made by critics of tar sands development.

“The study really confirms a lot of the information that has been out there, there are no real surprises,” Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told Circle of Blue. “You don’t want these things to be affirmed because it’s bad news for communities. But the good part about a study like this is hopefully it will prompt some action. Some folks were hiding behind the lack of a study like this, saying we don’t really know. Those excuses have gone away.”

“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges,” he added.

Nonetheless, energy companies are pursuing pipeline expansions, most notably in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions. Enbridge, Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, operates a 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) pipeline network, known as the Lakehead System, that carries crude oil from Canada to refineries on the Great Lakes. The Lakehead system, in concert with Enbridge’s Canadian main line, is capable of transporting 2.62 million barrels of oil per day. The pipeline responsible for the 2010 oil spill in Kalamazoo was part of the Lakehead system. A link in the Lakehead system ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than 3 million liters (843,000 gallons) of tar sands oil into southern Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and its effects still linger because of oil that sank and is embedded in the river’s sediments.

 
“The chief takeaway is that this is a different oil, it presents different challenges, and responders and regulators simply don’t have the structures in place to deal with the challenges.”

–Jim Murphy, Senior Counsel
National Wildlife Federation


Enbridge is currently pursuing upgrades to its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which runs through Minnesota and Wisconsin, in order to boost the line’s capacity to 800,000 barrels per day from 450,000 barrels per day. A second project aims to increase the capacity of Line 61, a pipeline that runs from Wisconsin to Illinois, from 560,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million barrels per day. Opposition to the company’s operation of a pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron join, has been especially fierce, though the line does not currently carry tar sands oil.

“I think at the very least we should be saying no to more tar sands through the [Great Lakes] region until we get a firm handle on how to deal with the unique challenges that tar sands spills present,” Murphy said. “We should also be taking a hard look, as the president did with the Keystone XL decision, about the other negative impacts of more tar sands oil, like the consequences in Alberta with the habitat destruction there, and also the higher carbon pollution content of the fuel.”

The National Academies study concluded that the characteristics of diluted bitumen are “highly problematic for spill response because 1) there are few effective techniques for detection, containment, and recovery of oil that is submerged in the water column, and 2) available techniques for responding to oil that has sunken to the bottom have variable effectiveness depending on the spill conditions.”

“Broadly, regulations and agency practices do not take the unique properties of diluted bitumen into account, nor do they encourage effective planning for spills of diluted bitumen,” it continued.

China Shenzhen economic development office park economy Guangdong Province
A tar ball recovered on the edge of a cove in Mayflower, Arkansas, after tar sands crude spilled from ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline in 2013. Click image to enlarge.

The study’s authors made a series of recommendations to help reduce the damage from future tar sands spills, including:

  • Update regulations that would require pipeline operators to identify and provide safety sheets for each crude oil transported by the pipeline, catalogue the areas and water bodies that would be most sensitive to a diluted bitumen spill, describe how they would detect and recover sunken oil, provide samples and information about the type of oil spilled to emergency officials, and publicly report the annual volumes and types of crude oil that pass through each pipeline.
  • Require the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal agency that regulates pipelines in the United States, to review spill response plans in coordination with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to determine if the plans are capable of responding to diluted bitumen spills.
  • Develop methods to detect, contain, and recover oil that sinks to the bottom of water bodies.
  • Require government agencies at the federal, state, and local level to use industry-standard names for crude oils when planning spill responses.
  • Revise oil classifications used by the U.S. Coast Guard to indicate that diluted bitumen can sink in water.
  • Collect data to improve modeling of diluted bitumen oil spills.
    Improve coordination between federal agencies and state and local governments when planning and practicing oil spill response exercises.
  • Develop a standard method for determining the adhesion –a measure of how sticky the oil is–of diluted bitumen in the event of a spill.

After the study’s release, PHMSA said it would develop a bulletin advising pipeline operators about the recommendations and urge voluntary improvements to their spill response plans. The agency also plans to hold a workshop next spring to hear public input on how to implement the recommendations, coordinate with other federal organizations to “advance the recommendations”, and work with industry representatives to improve spill response planning.

“We appreciate the work the National Academy of Sciences has done over the last few years in analyzing the risks of transporting diluted bitumen, including its effects on transmission pipelines, the environment and oil spill response activities,” Artealia Gilliard, PHMSA spokesperson and director for governmental, international and public affairs, said in a statement. “All pipelines transporting crude oil or any other hazardous liquid are required to meet strict federal safety regulations that work to prevent pipeline failures and to mitigate the consequences of pipeline failures when they occur.”


Codi Yeager-Kozacek is a news correspondent for Circle of Blue based out of Hawaii. She co-writes The Stream, Circle of Blue’s daily digest of international water news trends. Her interests include food security, ecology and the Great Lakes.