SACRAMENTO, Calif.— As one of California’s largest oil producers enters bankruptcy, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club today urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to prevent California Resources Corporation and other troubled oil companies from shirking legal obligations to clean up their wells and prevent pollution. CRC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday.
Today’s letter calls on the governor to intervene in CRC’s bankruptcy proceedings to ensure the company sets aside enough money for well cleanup. CRC and its affiliates operate approximately 18,700 wells in California, which could cost more than $1 billion to properly plug, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Of these, 7,826 are already “idle,” which means they’ve produced little to no oil in the past two years.
“Bankruptcy proceedings like these endanger California because oil companies like CRC can weaponize them to dump their environmental cleanup costs on the public,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Given the huge number of wells at stake, the Newsom administration should intervene quickly to protect the public from those costs and our environment from pollution. More big oil bankruptcies are coming, and Gov. Newsom has a responsibility to be ready.”
“CRC’s bankruptcy is likely just the first of many as the oil industry inevitably declines in California. Gov. Newsom has the tools to protect the public from Big Oil, but so far he hasn’t used them,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California. “It’s critical that Gov. Newsom ensure that failing oil companies are held accountable for cleaning up their own mess, rather than leaving taxpayers and workers to pay the price.”
Although oil companies are required to pay for the cost of properly plugging and abandoning wells, they have not set aside nearly the amount required for remediation. Statewide, the California Council on Science and Technology estimates that cleaning up California’s approximately 107,000 oil and gas wells would cost over $9.2 billion, yet the bonds that are supposed to cover these costs total only about $107 million.
Today’s letter also urges Gov. Newsom to take proactive steps to protect the public and the environment in anticipation of a likely wave of future oil and gas bankruptcies. These steps include:
Increasing and accelerating well plugging and abandonment requirements to reduce air and water pollution and create jobs.
Increasing bond requirements to ensure that oil and gas companies set aside enough financial resources to cover the full costs of remediation even if they become insolvent.
Ensuring that the oil and gas industry as a whole – not taxpayers –funds the remediation of truly “orphaned” wells, by increasing the administrative fee on well owners as needed.
Avoiding the accrual of additional well cleanup costs by halting approvals and permits for new oil and gas activity, including new wells and fracking permits.
Taking steps to ensure that oil and gas companies satisfy their obligations to workers by honoring their pension and healthcare commitments.
Despite the dire outlook for the company, Newsom has continued to issue CRC new permits to drill wells. State oil regulators have issued CRC and its affiliates permits to drill nearly 300 new wells so far this year, including 27 new permits in just the first week of July, all without conducting environmental review required by law. Newsom has approved this expansion of drilling operations despite CRC’s long record of violating safety and environmental regulations.
“As other companies flirt with insolvency, the governor should accelerate well remediation by solvent operators, increase bonding levels on existing wells, and stop digging the hole deeper by handing out new drilling permits,” said Siegel. “Forcing companies to clean up their own messes would create jobs, keep the public safe from unattended wells and make sure polluters are the ones paying for cleanup.”
Statewide, Newsom has issued 1,500 drilling permits for new wells so far this year. He also lifted a moratorium on fracking by authorizing 360 new fracking events over the past few months.
In 2014, CRC was created as a spin-off by Occidental Petroleum and took over Occidental’s California oil and gas wells. Since then, CRC has performed poorly, earning “junk bond” status from ratings agencies. CRC blamed the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn for the bankruptcy, but CRC was at high risk of bankruptcy even before these events, as detailed in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
On June 1, in the midst of the turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration quietly issued 12 fracking permits to Aera Energy, a joint venture owned by ExxonMobil and Shell.
Oil drilling in California has faced criticism for its disproportionately negative health impacts on Latino communities and other people of color. The 12 new permits will be for fracking in the Lost Hills Oil Field. The Kern County town of Lost Hills is more than 97 percent Latino, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
The fracking permits are the latest example of California’s oil industry benefiting from regulatory or deregulatory action during the COVID-19 pandemic and came just months after the Newsom administration said it supported taking actions to “manage the decline of oil production and consumption in the state.” Aera, which also received 24 permits from the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) on April 3 during the early days of COVID-19, has well-connected lobbyists in its corner who work for the firm Axiom Advisors.
One of them, Jason Kinney, headed up Newsom’s 2018 transition team and formerly served as a senior advisor to Newsom while he was lieutenant governor. He is also a senior advisor to California’s Senate Democrats. The other, Kevin Schmidt, previously served as policy director for Newsom when the latter was lieutenant governor. Aera paid Axiom $110,000 for its lobbying work in 2019 and, so far in 2020, has paid $30,000, lobbying reports reveal.
Axiom’s lobbying disclosure records show both Kinney and Schmidt listed as lobbyists and Aera as one of the firm’s clients. Kinney’s wife, Mary Gonsalvez Kinney, was also the stylist for Newsom’s wife–Jennifer Siebel Newsom–dating back to their time spent living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kinney and Schmidt did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.
Calling the situation “unseemly,” Jamie Court, president for the Los Angeles-based group Consumer Watchdog, wrote via email that “Aera should not be able to buy the influence it apparently has over state oil and gas policy.” Last November, prior to the 24 permits issued in April, Newsom had declared a statewide fracking permit moratorium in response to a scandal involving a regulator for the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). The regulator, who had been tasked with heading oversight issues on issuing permits, was revealed to have stock investments valued up to $100,000 in Aera Energy’s parent company, ExxonMobil. Newsom fired the head of DOGGR at the time, Ken Harris, and eventually renamed the agency CalGEM.
Kinney and Schmidt are not the only two with Newsom ties. Aera CEO Christina Sistrunk sits on the governor’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, created to craft an economic recovery plan in response to the ongoing COVID-19 economic fallout.
The town of Lost Hills has a population of about 2,500 people and its field ranks sixth in oil produced in the state. The field sits in close proximity to a residential neighborhood just west of Interstate Highway 5, close to both a middle school and public park.
Infrared camera footage from 2014, taken by the advocacy group Earthworks and the Clear Water Fund for a 2015 report they published, showed that the Lost Hills field emits prolific amounts of toxic chemicals into the air, including methane, acetone, dichlorodifluoromethane and acetaldehydes. High levels of isoprene and acetaldehydes can cause cancer, while the other substances can result in serious health damage, including heartbeat irregularities, headaches, nausea, vomiting, throat irritation, coughing and wheezing.
In a survey done for that same report of Lost Hills residents, respondents reported having “thyroid problems (7 percent), diabetes (7 percent), asthma (11 percent) and sinus infections (19 percent).”
“Of all respondents, 92.3 percent reported identifying odors in their homes and community,” it further detailed. “Odors were described as petroleum, burning oil, rotten eggs, chemicals, chlorine or bleach, a sweet smell, sewage, and ammonia. Participants reported that when odors were detected in the air, symptoms included headache (63 percent), nausea/dizziness (37 percent), burning or watery eyes (37 percent), and throat and nose irritation (18.5 percent).”
Methane is a climate change-causing greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A 20-year window falls within the 2030 deadline established by IPCC climate scientists in a 2018 report that concluded that, if bold action is not taken steadily until then, the world could face some of the most severe and irreversible impacts of climate change.
The new Lost Hills permits came as CalGEM completed its pre-rulemaking public hearings, on June 2, for regulations pertaining to distancing setbacks of oil wells from homes, schools, health clinics and public parks.
The rulemaking process also came as a direct result of the Newsom administration’s November fracking moratorium announcement, found within that same directive.
The lobbying disclosure records also show Kinney and Schmidt’s firm represents Marathon Petroleum, which advocated against legislation that would mandate CalGEM to implement a setbacks rule by July 1, 2022. That bill, AB 345, had previously mandated that a setback rule be put into place by 2020.
But after receiving lobbying pressure from the Common Ground Alliance— which has united major labor groups with the oil industry, and which was incorporated by an attorney whose clients include Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP America and Western States Petroleum Association—Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) made it a two-year bill during the 2019 legislative session. The “two-year” option for state legislators extends the lifeline of a bill for potential amendments and passage into the second year of every two-year legislative session. Gonzalez told Capital & Main the bill received two-year status due to its high implementation cost.
Aera’s parent company, ExxonMobil, has given Gonzalez $5,500 in campaign contributions since her first run for the Assembly in 2013. Aera also gave a $35,000 contribution to the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation during the first quarter of 2020, its lobbying disclosure form shows. Gonzalez is the chairwoman of the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the foundation is its nonprofit wing. And both Aera and the Common Ground Alliance share the same attorney, Steven Lucas, incorporation documents and disclosure forms show.
“The Governor has been clear about the need to strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction in California and to update regulations to protect public health and safety for communities near oil and gas operations,” Vicky Waters, Newsom’s press secretary, told Capital & Main in an emailed statement. “CalGEM has launched a rulemaking process to develop stronger regulations and will consider the best available science and data to inform new protective requirements.”
Waters did not respond to questions about Axiom Advisors and its personnel ties to Gov. Newsom.
The permits handed to Aera coincide with the Newsom administration granting the industry a suite of regulatory relaxation measures during the COVID-19 era. These include a delay in implementing management plans for idle oil wells and cutting the hiring of 128 analysts, engineers and geologists to bolster the state’s regulatory efforts on oil wells—even though the industry was legally obligated to pay for it.
In response to a question about the cancellation of hiring of 128 regulators, Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation—which oversees CalGEM—said by email that the “Administration had to revisit many proposals in the January budget as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fiscal challenges it created.”
“Significantly expanding a fee-based program in this time of belt-tightening would not be appropriate,” Schilling continued, speaking to the oil industry’s current financial travails. “However, CalGEM is committed to continuing its critical core enforcement and regulatory work with its current resources. Furthermore, all regulations remain in effect and operators are still accountable for meeting them.”
Schilling added that, with regards to the connections with Axiom Advisors, the administration works with “a variety of stakeholders on policy issues and budget decisions,” calling the latest budget proposal “consistent with Administration priorities.”
But Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network who lives near Lost Hills in Bakersfield, sees the situation differently.
“The Lost Hills community is already surrounded by extraction and the Newsom administration and CalGEM continue to show that they intend to put the environment and frontline communities as an afterthought,” he said, advocating for the passage of AB 345. “These actions show us that Californians can’t depend on empty political promises to protect public health.”
The Center For Biological Diversity and about 300 other groups sent a letter to Congress on Monday demanding that federal relief money aimed at relieving the effects of the COVID-19 crisis be directed to people directly affected by it, not fossil fuel corporations.
The fossil fuel industry, said the letter, should be excluded from receiving loans in the next COVID-19 aid package. New bills should ensure that affected workers in that industry are provided with assistance and labor protections for weathering a job transition.
“It’s a moral outrage for fossil fuel executives to try to cash in while workers and communities suffer through a pandemic,” said the Center’s Ben Goloff, a climate campaigner. “Congress needs to protect people, not a handful of profiteering polluters.”
Drive east along Interstate 80, past the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, and you can see that the Bay Area remains very much embedded in the fossil fuel economy. And if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its way, we may well be doubling down on that relationship.
The Corps has a pending proposal, officially dubbed the “San Francisco Bay to Stockton, California Navigation Study,” to dredge a 13-mile stretch of the San Francisco Bay Estuary from San Pablo Bay (just north of Point San Pablo) through the Carquinez Strait to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. This project would deepen the channel leading to four oil refineries along the shoreline by an average of three feet, allowing for the arrival of a larger class of oil tankers than can currently access these refineries. The Army Corps’ January 2020 Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the project claims that the total volume of oil shipped will not necessarily increase as a result of the project, but rather claims that the dredging might even result in reduced ship traffic in the Bay by delivering the same amount of oil on fewer (but larger) ships.
This argument has not persuaded Bay Area environmental groups, who last spring submitted comments on the Draft EIS opposing the dredging project. These groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ocean Conservation Research, are submitting similarly negative comments on the Final EIS, which they say is not much of an improvement over the 2019 draft version. The deadline for public comments has been extended, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, until Tuesday, April 21.
The concerns of these organizations fall in to three basic categories: direct impacts on the local aquatic environment from both the dredging itself and from the increased traffic; direct air quality impacts on local communities from the increase in refinery operations; and above all, concern that increasing the capacity for delivery and production of fossil fuels directly contradicts the state’s mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the impact of climate change.
I. Impacts on Local Aquatic Environment
The Army Corps’ EIS contends that the Bay floor sediments to be disturbed by the dredging do not contain significant levels of toxic materials. But comments by the environmental organizations point out that the Corps appears to be relying on studies done over a decade ago or more, and they list a range of contaminants that could be re-suspended from the settled sediment that are not addressed by the Corps. The groups point out that this narrow body of water connecting the Bay with the Delta is heavily used by endangered fish species, including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and Chinook salmon, among others, as well as by harbor seals and California sea lion, both protected marine mammal species.
The groups also point out that the EIS only addresses the impact of the dredging itself on the local aquatic environment. By asserting that the deepening of the channel will not, on its own, increase the level of shipping in the channel, the Corps disclaims any responsibility to address the impact of increased oil tanker traffic. However, as the environmental organizations point out, there is little chance that the refineries would not take advantage of this opportunity to increase their operations. In fact, as Ocean Conservation Research points out in its comments, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo has recently been granted permission by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to double its refining capacity. So it would be naïve to ignore the probability of increased traffic in the Strait, with is attendant increase in disturbance of all kinds (noise, water pollution, possible spills, etc.) and the resulting impact on wildlife populations.
In addition, Ocean Conservation Research’s comment letter points out that in order to accommodate the larger ships of the Panamax class (so-called because they are the maximum size allowed through the Panama Canal), the Phillips refinery has proposed an enlargement and expansion of its wharf facility. Such a project would involve disturbance of sediments full of toxic heavy metals left behind by the Selby Slag, a company that operated a smelter there into the 1970s, extracting ore from waste metals. Because the wharf expansion is considered a separate project, the Corps is not legally required to address it in its EIS — but expansion of the wharf would not be economically viable without the deeper channel.
Additionally, according to Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh, “Baykeeper has concerns about how the project will impact salinity in the Delta. Deepening the shipping channel will push the fresh water/salt water mixing zone (known as the X2) further east, threatening drinking water supplies” for people in Contra Costa County and other Delta communities.
II. Impacts on Local Communities
Again, by asserting that the dredging project will not result in increased refining activity, and therefore only considering the impact of the actual dredging work, the Corps’ EIS does not find any impact on surrounding “environmental justice communities.” These communities, including Richmond, Vallejo, and Martinez, have been subjected to high levels of pollution from decades of industrial activity, and are demographically “majority minority” and low income. The failure of the EIS to contemplate increased levels of air pollution from increased refinery activities belies the refineries’ long record of “accidental” spills, flares, releases, etc. that have caused the area’s residents to periodically “shelter in place” long before the novel coronavirus.
III. The Big Picture
All of these local negative impacts are bad enough. But in their comments, the environmental groups assert that it is essential to step back and look at the much larger picture of what the dredging project implies for the region, the state, and the planet:
“The proposed channel alterations would remove constraints on expanding fossil fuel import and export volumes … The project will likely result in a significant increase in future volumes of crude oil and refined petroleum products shipped through the Bay … Here, the increased volume of oil and coal passing through the deepened channels will lead to greater refining and export activity. These in turn will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, both at the refineries and when the products are combusted. Stated differently, the dredging is ‘a mere step in furtherance of many other steps in the overall development’ of the area’s fossil fuel industry.”
The environmental groups believe that the ultimate plan of the oil companies is to have the Bay Area’s refineries serve as an outlet for oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands, one of the most carbon intensive fuel sources on the planet, given the energy that must be invested to extract it, liquefy it for transport, and ship it. Moreover, the transport of this oil from its source in northern Alberta to the Bay Area is highly problematic, both politically and environmentally. It involves expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline over First Nation lands of the Salish people in Canada (a project that they are resisting both in the courts and on their land). Then the unrefined oil must be transported by tankers through the Salish Sea, threatening the already depleted Southern Resident population of killer whales. And finally, the tankers must pass through the Golden Gate, where recovering populations of humpback whales and gray whales are also facing increased threats from ship strikes in this busy shipping channel.
All of this leads to the final question of why U.S. taxpayers should fund (at an estimated initial cost of $57 million) a project whose main intended beneficiaries are privately owned oil refineries. Of course, direct taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are nothing new, but in an era when we climate change requires us to be reducing our dependence on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, this project would appear to be moving us in the opposite direction.
About the Author
From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.
This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.
Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column “Field Reports.”