California relies on oil firms to probe worker’s death


SACRAMENTO — Nearly a year after a Kern County oil worker was sucked underground and boiled to death, state authorities have turned to the two leading oil companies involved in the incident to investigate it.

On Monday, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources released a report outlining the circumstances of the worker’s death, and subsequent oil spills and eruptions, in a field where Chevron and another operator were using steam extraction. The technique causes a rush of steam to fracture and heat the ground to loosen deposits of crude.

The regulators listed possible causes of the accident, including damaged well casings and instability caused by previous steam injection. They also found that on-site meters had recorded ground movement in the area four times during the week before the worker’s death.

But they said the definitive answers would be provided by the oil companies after more testing. Chevron and TRC Operating Co., they said, have the equipment and technology to provide a clearer picture than the state could.

That prompted outrage from labor leaders, who said regulators had abdicated their oversight responsibilities.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in the companies policing themselves,” said Ed Crane, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 12-6, the union that represents oil field workers. “I don’t expect the companies to find out anything they’ve done wrong. They haven’t yet.”

Union officials said that for years workers have had safety concerns about the extraction process. They describe it as inherently dangerous because injecting steam at high pressure to coax oil from the porous earth can create craters-in-waiting.

According to the oil and gas agency’s report, Robert David Taylor and two Chevron co-workers were walking in a Kern county oil field last June when they observed a plume of steam coming from the ground.

As they moved closer, the earth opened up and swallowed Taylor. Immersed in a cauldron of oil fluids, he yelled for help as a co-worker tried to reach him, first by hand, then with a piece of pipe. His body was recovered 17 hours later.

Regulators said they had not asked Chevron whether the workers had been told that meters had detected the ground shifting in the area. But a separate investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health earlier this year found that the company had failed to establish written guidelines for employees on how to use the devices.

According to the oil and gas agency’s report, Chevron had tried and failed to plug and abandon its damaged well three times before the accident. In the weeks and months after Taylor’s death, the ground trembled, and a crater began to spew oil fluids and rocks as high as 100 feet in the air. Today, it continues to seep roughly 40 barrels of fluid a day.

Chevron declined to comment on the report other than to say in a statement that it had concerns about the document. The company also declined to comment on the accident, citing ongoing litigation.

“We place high value on safety of our employees and contractors who work with us,” Chevron’s statement said, “and we are working hard to understand exactly what happened and prevent it from happening again.”

Tim Kustic, the state’s oil and gas supervisor, said the accident was an anomaly — that companies have used the “cyclic steaming” extraction technique safely for decades. Still, he noted that an uptick in oil spills and eruptions has led his agency to start developing rules for use of the technique.

The report said that about 30 such so-called surface expressions have been documented in the oil field where the accident occurred since steaming began in the mid-1990s.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown fired his top two oil regulators, who had raised concerns about the process. The governor said they had needlessly stepped up environmental scrutiny and slowed the permitting process.