A Bottomless Barrel? California’s Big Oil Boom

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

The oil industry has spent $122 million in the past six years to shape regulation and legislation in the state of California, Michael J. Mishak of the Center for Public Integrity reported in the Nation in February 2017.

California is the third largest oil-producing state in the nation, behind only Texas and North Dakota. As Mishak noted, California has also won international praise for its efforts to fight climate change. In response to California’s stance on the environment, the oil and gas industry has sought to push production in California by attempting to weaken the influence of state and federal regulatory agencies. Thus, in recent years Big Oil has thwarted a proposed statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Mishak’s article begins with a dramatic account of the June 2011 death of a Chevron supervisor, Robert David Taylor, in a Kern County oil field. Taylor and two coworkers were dispatched to the oil field known as the Kern County Midway Sunset to investigate a problematic plume of steam, known as a “chimney,” was observed at Well 20. Taylor and his coworkers set out to investigate the oil well, which was known to release scalding geysers of oil, water, and rocks up to forty feet in the air. As they were making their way through the field the ground beneath them gave way. Within seconds Taylor was swallowed, feet first, into a black, burbling cauldron of fluid and poisonous gas. His coworkers tried in vain to save his life but were unable to do so. Seventeen hours later the boiled remains of Taylor were exhumed from the sinkhole.

Taylor, Mishak reported, was the victim to a controversial technique known as cyclic steaming, in which steam is pumped into the earth to dislodge thick, tar-like crude. The Midway-Sunset oil field is over one hundred years old, and it has been sucked dry over the years. Cyclic steaming is “like filling an empty ketchup bottle with water to get the last few drops,” Mishak wrote.

Taylor’s death spurred the state’s oil and gas supervisor, Elena Miller, to redouble her efforts to force oil companies to address the dangers of underground injection, including cyclic steaming and other techniques that infuse fluids into the earth to extract oil. As Mishak reported, four months after Taylor’s death, Governor Jerry Brown fired Miller and a colleague who had supported her in efforts to control underground injection.

Although California is nationally known for its progressive leadership on environmental protections, and despite Governor Jerry Brown’s outspoken opposition to President Trump and his pro-drilling cabinet, Mishak reported that, “the oil industry has helped reshape California’s political landscape, in part by cultivating a relationship with Brown and nourishing a new breed of Democrats: moderate lawmakers who are casting a critical eye on the state’s suite of climate-change policies, including its signature cap-and-trade program, which aims to curb greenhouse gases by penalizing companies that pollute.”

Mishak’s Nation report provides an in-depth look at the scope of Big Oil’s lobbying and influence in California that has not been matched in the corporate press. However, in April and May of 2012, the Los Angeles Times published articles on this topic by Mishak.

Source: Michael J. Mishak, “Big Oil’s Grip on California,” Nation, February 13, 2107, https://www.thenation.com/article/big-oils-grip-on-california/.

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