A major Kern County oil spill in environmentally conscious California

In this May 10 photo, oil flows at a Chevron oil field in Kern County, Calif.
(California Deptartment of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response via AP)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 17, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

California as a paragon of environmentalism is a loud narrative — one that has shaped headlines and stereotypes and even attitudes, especially in the big cities. The state has been a pioneer on vehicle emissions standards, air pollution legislation and efficiency standards, to name just a few areas of national leadership.

But oil has also played an integral role in the California narrative for nearly a century and a half, since the state’s first real oil well struck “black gold” in 1876. That black gold shaped early 20th-century Southern California, powering the growth of Los Angeles and making fortunes for many of the families whose names still adorn streets and buildings around the state. And that importance is far from confined to history books.

State oil production has been steadily arcing downward since the mid-1980s, but California remains one of the nation’s top petroleum-producing — and gasoline-consuming — states. Until recently, we still produced more oil than any other state but Texas and North Dakota (the Golden State has since slipped to sixth place). Oil and gas companies are also potent political forces that wield major influence in the state Capitol.

[See also: The Center for Investigative Reporting’s 2017 look at “Big Oil’s grip on California”]


The duality of the “two Californias” is a shopworn cliché, but, like many clichés, it prevails for a reason. There is the California of electric cars, kitchen compost bins and vocal opposition to President Trump’s climate policies. Then there is the California of Kern County, where oil and gas production remain a pillar of the local economy and more than 70% of California’s oil and natural gas is produced. The reach of that latter California extends far beyond the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley — in the first quarter of 2019, the top two spenders on lobbying at the statehouse were Chevron and the broader trade group that represents oil companies.

The constant push-and-pull between California environmentalism and its oil fields came to a public head late last week. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom fired the state’s top oil regulator after learning that fracking permits had doubled without his knowledge since he became governor, and some of the supervisors tasked with regulating the industry owned shares in major oil companies.

On Friday, news broke that a Chevron oil well in Kern County had leaked nearly 800,000 gallons of crude petroleum and water into a dry creek bed about 35 miles west of Bakersfield over the past two months. The mixture was about one-third oil and two-thirds water, and the flow has since ceased, according to the state Department of Conservation. The seep occurred in an oil field where Chevron uses a process called steam injection to extract underground crude oil.

Ted Goldberg, an editor at KQED News who often reports on Bay Area refineries, uncovered the spill while searching a government database for updates on an entirely separate incident at Chevron’s Richmond refinery in Northern California. “In May, Chevron officials began noticing that oil and water started coming up from the ground when it shouldn’t,” Goldberg explained. “It lasted for a little while and then it stopped. And then on two other occasions since then, it started [again]. The agency that’s responsible for regulating this stuff has been criticized, basically, for doing not an aggressive job in general.”

[Read “Chevron Well at Center of Major Oil Spill in Kern County Oil Field” by Ted Goldberg in KQED]

“Chevron and the state agency that regulates oil and gas and the state water regulators have all emphasized that there’s no drinking water supplies in the area, that there’s no harm to wildlife,” Goldberg said. “And as you can probably expect, environmentalists disagree with that.”

Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental group, said the damage potentially caused by the spill “still remains to be seen.” Kretzmann characterized the spill as a larger failure of government regulation, calling it “the end result of regulations that are completely inadequate to prevent these accidents from happening and protect the public and the environment.”

“We can’t be a leader in climate change and protecting the environment if we’re one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the country,” Kretzmann said, touching on the two competing visions of California at play.

The long-term future of oil and gas production in the state remains to be seen. Many environmental groups have been hopeful that Newsom may move to curtail it. The state budget that the new governor signed last month did include a $1.5-million item to study ways to reduce petroleum supply and demand, which certainly seems promising to their cause. But nothing — especially in California — is ever black and white, and an environmentalist victory would also probably deliver deep economic blows to the oil towns of Kern.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


How many students cheated to get into USC? The university has launched its own investigation to find out. Shortly after federal authorities took down a national college admissions scam in March, officials at USC sent emails to dozens of students. The school wanted to know whether the 33 students — all of whom were linked to William “Rick” Singer, the confessed leader of the admissions con — had lied on their applications.

USC officials told students that decisions would come within weeks, according to lawyers representing several of the students. But the probe has turned into a protracted, fraught push by USC to clear its ranks of any students who were complicit. Los Angeles Times

A coal plant in rural Utah has been L.A.’s single-largest power source for three decades, supplying between one-fifth and one-third of the city’s electricity in recent years. It’s scheduled to shut down in 2025, ending California’s reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuel. But Los Angeles is preparing to build a natural gas-fired power plant at the Utah site, even as the city works to shut down three gas plants in its own backyard. Los Angeles Times

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has died at 99. Though he joined the court as a centrist Republican, he emerged in his later years as the leading voice of its liberal bloc. Los Angeles Times

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Women at an L.A. County jail endured group strip searches. Now, the county must pay $53 million to settle a lawsuit on the matter. Los Angeles Times

Plus: The Times Editorial Board weighs in on the matter: “The same toxic culture that led to brutality against inmates of both sexes persists. The same ignorance of women and their particular needs continues.” Los Angeles Times

Metro’s proposal to run a rapid bus line down Colorado Boulevard drew hundreds of Eagle Rock residents to a tense public meeting. LAist

Scene from the HBO series Game of Thrones. Emilia Clarke.
Emilia Clarke in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
(Helen Sloan / HBO)

HBO dominated the 2019 Emmy nominations, thanks to the final season of long-running hit “Game of Thrones” and second-year comedy “Barry.” The network snagged 137 nominations, the most of any network and topping streaming rival Netflix. Los Angeles Times

“The earth’s crust played the ultimate heckler” for this L.A. comedian, who was mid-set when the 7.1 Ridgecrest earthquake struck earlier this month. And yes, it was captured on video. Los Angeles Magazine

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A deported Marine Corps veteran was denied entry to the U.S. for a scheduled citizenship interview. San Diego Union-Tribune


The U.S. House voted to condemn President Trump’s tweets as racist. The House was briefly thrown into chaos before the vote when Republicans objected to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-San Francisco) use of the word “racist” to describe Trump’s words, which violates the chamber’s rules of decorum. Democrats voted to restore Pelosi’s right to speak in the chamber again before proceeding to the measure condemning Trump. Los Angeles Times

L.A. County’s child welfare chief faced sharp questioning over why a 4-year-old Palmdale boy, who died earlier this month under what authorities call suspicious circumstances, wasn’t removed from his parents’ home amid abuse claims — despite a recent court order. Los Angeles Times


Alleged MS-13 gang members from L.A. have been charged in a string of grisly killings. Los Angeles Times


A pair of earthquakes shook the East Bay on Tuesday afternoon. San Francisco Chronicle

A new study shows that heat waves are likely to become longer and more intense — even in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s famously cool summers (as immortalized in a certain oft-referenced and possibly apocryphal Mark Twain quip) could soon come to resemble the warmer East Bay as temperatures rise. San Francisco Chronicle

The Central Valley could also see more dangerously hot days due to climate change, according to the same report. Sacramento Bee

Nuclear fuel transfer from wet to dry storage will resume this week at the closed San Onofre nuclear power plant in Orange County. The process was halted for nearly a year after an incident last summer. Orange County Register


Santa Cruz County has the second-highest child poverty rate in the state, as the high cost of living and lower wages put many families in a bind. Mercury News

BART will be adding new bike straps to all trains. San Francisco Chronicle

Flint’s — a legendary name in Oakland barbecue — is being resurrected as a pop-up helmed by the founder’s granddaughter. Mercury News

Here are 20 “non-touristy” spots to see Sonoma County like a local. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Four of the seven Google employees who organized an international walkout in November have since resigned from the company, including two women who alleged that Google retaliated against them for their organizing. Wired

A mystery submarine spotted in Monterey Bay belongs to the former child actor who played the youngest son on “Home Improvement.” KSBW


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 81. San Diego: partly sunny, 71. San Francisco: partly sunny, 71. San Jose: partly sunny, 83. Sacramento: sunny, 95. More weather is here.


The whole place stank of orange blossoms.

— — H.L. Mencken

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.