What happened to California regulators’ vows to make steam injections safer? by Julie Cart Julie, November 28, 2015, LA Times
On the morning of the day he died, David Taylor and his crew were looking for a “chimney” — a fissure in the earth where steam and oil periodically spurted into the air in an oil field west of Bakersfield.
Taylor, a construction supervisor for Chevron, had been battling a long-standing problem near a dormant well in the Midway-Sunset oil field. His job was to control leaks at Well 20 in a primordial tableau of sinkholes, small bubbling pools of scalding water and geysers that on occasion spewed 40-foot plumes of oil, water and rocks.
The conditions, known as “surface expressions,” [What an evil way to make a deadly frac impact sound harmless] were in part the result of an oil extraction technique known as cyclic steaming. The process forces superheated water underground at high pressure to open pathways to siphon heavy oil.
An unintended consequence is that some fluids make their way to the surface through newly created ruptures or via old, broken, or unstable wells.
To mitigate the risk from the escaping liquids, state regulations require oil companies to perform an Area of Review, in which they must map and document every well — new, idle, plugged or abandoned — near an injection site and repair any potential problems. Companies must also analyze the site’s geology and freshwater sources, and calibrate injection pressures to reduce the chance that oil or steam will push their way to the surface or out of the oil-bearing zone.
But state and federal authorities say in many cases oil companies are allowed to bypass those safety requirements or avoid them through a regulatory loophole.
Taylor, 54, and two co-workers were dispatched to Well 20 on June 21, 2011. Chevron had been trying to control the well since 1997, spending more than $2 million. The company stopped injections near the area to try to ease the problem, but neighboring oil producers kept up high-pressure injections. More than 30 surface expressions existed within a mile of the well.
As the crew walked the site, surrounded by a landscape dense with new and old wells and miles of pipes and casings, the ground gave way beneath Taylor. He fell feet first into a cavity burbling with 190-degree water and hydrogen sulfide.
Co-workers rushed to the brink but could not reach him. As they extended a length of pipe for him to grasp, Taylor slid further into the 10-foot diameter crater.
His wife stood vigil beside the sinkhole until rescuers could retrieve his body 17 hours later.
Chevron called Taylor’s death a “tragic and isolated incident,” and said it has a “long track record of safely conducting cyclic steaming in the Midway-Sunset Field.”
Afterward, California’s oil and gas regulators vowed to make urgent reforms. Taylor’s death would mean something, they said. It would be the beginning of a major overhaul of the way the oil companies conduct steam injection.
Four years later, however, there has been little progress.
The state has not acted, either by revising regulations or enforcing existing rules.
Cyclic steaming was specifically exempted from the state’s new hydraulic fracking regulations.
The task of helping draft the outlines of those reforms was placed before the Conservation Committee of California Oil and Gas Producers, a group of oil industry officials in Bakersfield. The committee has an advisory role along with DOGGR, the state Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, because the industry has expertise on extraction techniques that state regulators want to tap.
The industry group has not addressed the questions the state asked it to consider after Taylor’s death: What rules should be put in place to prevent surface expressions and how can operators ensure oil and drilling fluids remain separate from clean water sources? What can the state — and producers — do to make steam injections safer?
Jerry Anderson, the group’s executive director, declined to comment.
State oil regulators say they are writing new rules regarding steam operations but say the revisions are at least a year away. [Will the oil and gas industry and politicians let new or existing rules get in the way of their greed?]
Industry officials say they support the state’s efforts to craft new rules.
Steam injection has been used for decades in California, growing in popularity as reserves of more easily recovered oil have been tapped. More than half the state’s oil wells use cyclic steam or steam flooding.
By 2011, with oil fetching an average of $110 a barrel, more than twice the current price, oil companies stepped up injection pressures to levels that brought near chaos to the oil fields. Engineers across the region engaged in a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole, rushing to plug one geyser while others broke through elsewhere. State regulators struggled to identify where surface expressions were sprouting.
Federal authorities began to take note. First, an Environmental Protection Agency 2011 review of California’s underground injection program criticized the state for failing to enforce state and federal regulations. [Where in the world do regulators successfully regulate the oil and gas industry?]
Then the federal Government Accountability Office found last year that state officials routinely allowed cyclic steam operators to exceed approved fracture gradients — the amount of pressure required to crack open an oil-bearing formation. In fact, it is common practice in California to let companies set their own injection pressures. [Sounds like Alberta!]
The state agency responsible for oversight of steam injection, DOGGR, has dual and at times conflicting missions of both regulating the industry and helping it extract oil. It has failed on the regulatory side with regard to steaming, critics and even the agency itself say.
… Maintaining well integrity requires the careful calibration of injection pressure and volume in keeping with state and federal guidelines for fracture gradients. These tolerances are particularly sensitive because the geologic formation in this part of the San Joaquin Valley —diatomite — is prone to subsidence and sinkholes.
Even marginal errors can trigger a catastrophic cascade: Ground movement can create unintended fractures or cracks in brittle formations near old wells that have been improperly abandoned or push fluids into new poorly engineered wells that can shear casings.
Jan Gillespie, a professor at Cal State Bakersfield and geologist with long experience in the oil industry, had her first encounter with a blown well in 1985, when steaming a field packed with old wells. Gillespie was injecting steam when it hit an abandoned well bore.
“It blew it sky high,” she said. “We had no idea [the old well] was there. It appeared as a dot on the map, but the well wasn’t where the dot was.”
Toxic chemicals in drilling fluids pose a potential threat to the public should the fluids migrate to water supplies. [Too bad none of the harmed citizens can find out what toxic chemicals they’re bathing their children in, feeding them, or allowing them to breathing venting from their water taps]
The U.S. Geological Survey warned the state water board earlier this year that well integrity is a serious threat to freshwater aquifers. “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways,” the agency concluded in a 2014 paper.
A scientific study of oil operations in California, produced earlier this year at the behest of the Legislature, raised red flags about potential aquifer contamination. To determine if freshwater supplies have been tainted, the California Council on Science and Technology said the state and water districts should engage in widespread testing of water sources.
Nothing of the kind has occurred.
Oil operators say they have expertise to inject safely even if they use higher pressure and volume than guidelines allow.
Rick Fortnum, Chevron’s operations superintendent at the Midway-Sunset field, said that the company injects above the fracture gradient by carefully calibrating pressures and volumes. He said the company has precise geological and engineering data that reduces risk.
Oil companies often avoid the few regulations governing steam injection: Cyclic steaming wells operate as injection wells part of the time and as oil producing wells the rest, making them difficult to define. Many oil operators classify their wells as production wells, which fall outside injection regulations.
DOGGR records show that at least 40,000 steam wells across California escape regulation via those conflicting definitions.
Seven weeks after Taylor’s death, state Oil and Gas Supervisor Elena Miller ordered the oil company TRC to halt a steaming operation it operated near Well 20. The order noted: “A volatile eruption” near Well 20 was “expelling rocks, other material, and emitting fluid and steam.”
Days later, Chevron reported that the ground trembled and a geyser spewed liquid 100 feet into the air.
Chevron and TRC operated on neighboring leases in the Midway-Sunset field. The companies are in litigation, each claiming the other’s injections and operations have created problems on their land.
On Aug. 26 Miller issued another emergency order, banning steam injection within 800 feet of the sinkhole. The situation in the field had become “unpredictable, unstable and dangerous,” according to the agency order.
Oil companies complied but the surface expressions remained, perhaps the result of steam injection at other wells in the field.
Miller’s orders regarding Well 20 were to be among her last.
Alarmed by the number of blowouts and concerned about the integrity of wells, Miller cracked down. She sent an email to all DOGGR employees, saying the agency would begin abiding by the regulations: Producers would be required to provide geological and engineering studies.
Industry backlash was immediate.
Oil company representatives and lobbyists complained to Gov. Jerry Brown, saying the studies were expensive and slowed the issuance of drilling permits, hamstringing an industry vital to the economy of the region and state.
Within months, Brown fired Miller and her boss, Derek Chernow, the acting director of the state Department of Conservation. The governor replaced them with regulators who promised a “flexible approach.” By 2014, the average time required to issue permits was cut in half.
Bohlen, who now has Miller’s job, said DOGGR is concerned about the lax regulation of steam injection.
“The reason we are worried about safety is that when you have oil coming to the surface you don’t know whether the ground is stable,” he said. “That is at least part, if not all, of the issue around the David Taylor incident.”
Barred by state law from suing the employer, the Taylor family has filed a wrongful-death suit against a contractor who constructed a subsurface drain. The lawsuit calls cyclic steaming an “abnormally dangerous and ultra hazardous activity.” [Emphasis added]
Oil worker’s death renews debate on safety of extraction method, Chevron was fined $350 after an employee at a Kern County field where high-pressure steam is injected into the ground was sucked underground and boiled to death last year by Michael J. Mishak, April 14, 2012, Los Angeles Times
California’s largest oil company failed to warn employees of the dangers in an oil field where a worker was sucked underground and boiled to death last year, state authorities found — and then they fined the firm $350.
The small regulatory penalty, levied after a first investigation cleared Chevron, has angered labor leaders and reignited a debate over the risks of the extraction technique that led to the worker’s death. The method, in which a rush of steam heats the ground and loosens oil deposits, yields much of California’s crude.
Labor leaders said that for years workers have had safety concerns about the process, which they described as inherently dangerous because injecting steam at high pressures to coax oil from the porous earth can create a minefield of craters-in-waiting.
“They let Chevron off the hook way too easy,” said Ed Crane, secretary-treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 12-6, the union that represents oil field workers. “A guy died, for God’s sake. If people aren’t being trained properly, how does $350 handle that? Chevron is not going to pay attention to that.”
The company has appealed the citation. Chevron declined to comment on the case other than to say in a statement that it is challenging “several inaccuracies and matters that needed clarification.”
According to state inspectors, Robert David Taylor and two Chevron co-workers were walking in a Kern County oil field last June when they observed discolored soil. As they moved closer, the earth opened up and swallowed Taylor. Immersed in a caldron 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.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health closed the case after a two-month investigation, finding no violations. “They kind of concluded that it was like an act of God,” said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the agency.
Investigators revisited the accident in September at the urging of officials in the state’s oil and gas agency, who were concerned about whether the site posed environmental or public safety hazards. The regulators had banned steam operations near the Chevron well after the accident, but rocks and fluids continued to spew from the ground. The “volatile eruptions” sent fluid and debris as high as 100 feet in the air, according to emergency orders issued by oil regulators.
A Cal/OSHA investigator declared the site an imminent hazard and issued an order barring workers from the area until they received safety training. Chevron, the order said, had failed to warn employees of the dangers of steam injection, specifically sinkholes.
Regulators cited the company in February for not informing workers in writing of “necessary safeguards.” The firm also failed to establish written guidelines for using tools to help gauge ground movement, the citation said.
Melton defended the $350 fine, saying Chevron had orally warned its workers of the dangers. He also noted Taylor’s status as a veteran oil worker with more than three decades of experience. “There’s no question that those three employees who went out there knew they were entering a potentially dangerous area,” Melton said. “They weren’t sent out there blindly.”
The state oil and gas agency has been conducting its own investigation, but officials said a final report “will not be ready for a few weeks, at least.”
More than nine months after the accident, the Chevron well continues to gush dozens of barrels of oil fluid a day, according to the oil and gas agency. Regulators said they are looking to Chevron and a competitor who also practices steam injection in the area to identify the source of the problem.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown fired his top two oil regulators in a dispute over underground injection, saying that they had needlessly stepped up environmental scrutiny and slowed the permitting process. One of the officials Brown installed as a replacement told lawmakers at a hearing last month that regulators and the energy industry alike were still struggling to control the technology.
Mark Nechodom, director of the California Department of Conservation, said using steam to extract oil can be “very tricky.”
“The industry itself is learning as it’s going along,” he said.
February 23, 2010:
January 10, 2012:
“I’m not saying it’s stumbling around doing dumb things entirely, but I’m saying that the industry is gathering as much information as it possibly can on how this very valuable resource can be exploited and produced without danger to the environment or human health.”
Taylor’s family, barred by state law from suing Chevron, has filed a wrongful-death suit against a contractor, saying negligent construction in the oil field contributed to the sinkhole. Lawyer Daniel Rodriguez said family members were puzzled by the fine and are hoping to learn more about the circumstances of the accident through their civil suit. [Emphasis added]
Oil companies square off over sinkhole death by John Cox, September 13, 2014, The Bakersfield Californian
Steam escapes from the sinkhole that opened up June 21, 2011, killing Chevron USA employee Robert David “Dave” Taylor at the Midway-Sunset Oil Field near Taft.
California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources took this photo more than a month after the accident, during a three-day “eruption” of oil, water and rocks that led the agency to expand a localized ban on the well-stimulation technique known as cyclic steaming.
Neighboring oil producers in Kern County’s prolific Midway-Sunset Oil Field are waging a court battle over whose steam injections may have created the sinkhole that swallowed a 54-year-old grandfather on the first day of summer 2011.
His family’s three-year-old wrongful death lawsuit alleges a Taft company made negligent use of a well-stimulation technique called cyclic steaming, or “huff and puff.”
A twist in the case came July 17 when the defendant, TRC Operating Co. Inc., filed suit accusing its neighbor, Chevron USA, of pumping the steam it says migrated underground and weakened soil where the sinkhole appeared. It claims not only that Chevron’s failure to properly plug a broken well it owns nearby further contributed to the hole’s formation, but that Chevron owes it $80 million — and counting — for lost oil sales and other expenses stemming from a ban on cyclic steaming state regulators imposed near the sinkhole after the accident.
Robert David “Dave” Taylor’s sudden death the morning of June 21, 2011, and now the two lawsuits in Kern County Superior Court, have shed light on the most dangerous aspects of an oil field technique common in western Kern. His case will likely shape new cyclic steaming rules state regulators expect to introduce within the next couple of years. [Refer to first article above, nothing yet.]
Cal-OSHA investigators have reported Taylor, a Chevron construction supervisor, was walking with two co-workers to retrieve pieces of culvert when they noticed soil discoloration near the site of a problem well at Midway-Sunset.
Without warning, Taylor fell into a previously unknown sinkhole filled with steam, water and oil as hot as 190 degrees, the agency wrote in an August 2011 report. It said the man nearest him put his arm into the hole to try to reach Taylor but could not. By the time one of the co-workers got a pipe to pull him out, Taylor was gone from view.
It took emergency rescuers 17 hours to recover Taylor’s body. The county coroner’s office never identified what specifically killed him.
Cal-OSHA fined Chevron $350 for failing to put in writing certain safety procedures to protect its employees from the hazards of “excessive subsidence movement in the ground” at Midway-Sunset.
In the months prior to Taylor’s death, Chevron paid for underground construction work near the sinkhole site. The drain its contractors installed was designed to address state oil regulators’ concerns about “surface expressions” in the vicinity.
Surface expressions can take several forms, from minor seepage of steam and oil field fluids to violent eruptions and “volcanoes” that can shoot rocks and other materials high into the air. They occur when pressurized steam breaks outside its intended zone and makes its way to the surface. [But but but, industry promises fracs never go out of zone!]
Cyclic steaming is not supposed to send fluids to the surface. The idea is to pump steam down a well at high pressure, let it soak for a few days to thin the oil, then bring oil and water up through the well.
While surface expressions were not uncommon at Midway-Sunset around the time of Taylor’s death, regulators and industry people have said the sinkhole appears to have been an aberration.
State oil regulators investigating Taylor’s death focused on a Chevron well they believe was broken and may have allowed steam from nearby cyclic steaming to migrate underground and cause surface expressions.
Chevron has acknowledged the well was ruptured, possibly by seismic activity. It spent some $2 million trying to plug it before declaring the effort unsuccessful. The company has said it quit injecting steam within 300 feet of the well in 2008.
But cyclic steaming in the vicinity did not stop entirely, and the two lawsuits related to Taylor’s death draw different conclusions about whose well-stimulation work may have gone wrong and contributed to the dangerous conditions that killed him.
Bakersfield lawyer Daniel Rodriguez, representing Taylor’s wife, son and daughter’s wrongful death suit, says the formation the man fell into wasn’t a sinkhole but an eruption.
Rodriguez further claims a geyser-like eruption took place earlier the same morning on TRC’s property, and that there have been about 16 such events on the company’s land before and since Taylor’s death.
The problem with TRC’s operations at Midway-Sunset, Rodriguez alleges, is its use of pressure exceeding the “fracture gradient” at which point underlying rock cracks and allows steam to escape into unintended areas, including the surface.
Rodriguez says he has evidence showing TRC was injecting steam at between 600 and 800 pounds per square inch, more than twice the maximum pressure Chevron used nearby.
The family’s lawsuit initially targeted several companies Chevron hired to perform the underground construction work.
(California labor law generally shields employers like Chevron from wrongful death suits filed by their workers’ families.)
The family says TRC negligently failed to monitor and control its steam.
The suit alleges steam and water from TRC’s well-stimulation activities “caused a sinkhole to form on the Chevron Corp. lease in which Mr. Taylor fell into on the day of the incident.”
TRC maintains there is no evidence its operations created the sinkhole. One of its attorneys, Bakersfield lawyer Larry Peake, said the company’s cyclic steam work at Midway-Sunset was fully permitted by state regulators and involved “protective measures above those common in the industry.”
Taylor’s death, though unfortunate, “certainly had nothing to do with what TRC’s doing on its property,” Peake said.
Instead, TRC’s suit accuses Chevron of negligent cyclic steaming — not at the broken well near the sinkhole but at a separate oil well not far away.
TRC alleges Chevron violated its own “internal policy” of refraining from cyclic steaming within 300 feet of the broken well. Right up to the day of Taylor’s death, it says, Chevron steamed at a well located within 277 feet of the broken well.
Rodriguez, however, asserted the Chevron oil well TRC claims was steaming is more like 500 feet from the broken well. He said TRC was steaming at no fewer than three wells within 500 feet of the sinkhole around the time of the fatality.
TRC’s claim for $80 million originated with a ban on cyclic steaming imposed within 800 feet of the broken well by California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The company’s lawsuit says a significant number of its wells have been idled by the ban.
DOGGR set the ban after a series of oil field eruptions occurred at Midway-Sunset in the months following Taylor’s death. The division was unable to say Friday whether the ban remains in place.
Chevron has assigned lawyers to the two lawsuits but has not filed a detailed response to TRC’s claims, and a company spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Sidney P. Chapin rejected Rodriguez’s request to consolidate the two lawsuits and scheduled the wrongful death trial to start Sept. 21, 2015. No trial date has been set for TRC’s suit against Chevron.
Since the accident, DOGGR has worked with Chevron and TRC to come up with ways to prevent future accidents, such as continuous monitoring of steam pressure. The idea is to turn off the steam if pressure drops sharply, which could be an indication vapor has found a way to the surface. [Like AER asking companies to stop fracing after quake damage is done?]
DOGGR says it plans to codify these and other safeguards in a set of regulations to be released within two years for public comment. Besides continuing pressure monitoring, it wants to formalize well testing requirements, set new standards relating to fracture gradients and otherwise minimize chances of surface expressions. [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
Another frac mess! 200 Evacuated, Nearly 70 homes damaged in Marinza, Albania; Canadian firm Bankers Petroleum Ltd (has steam injection pilot project there), was at 500 metres depth when “volcanos” of gas, mud (chemicals?) and water erupted
Satellite data sound alarm on safety of high pressure injection; data shows significant ground deformation (subsidence and uplift) in area of CNRL leak, 10 times faster than lower-pressure injection