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The Best (read: worst) of Big Oil in

California 2016
As the year comes to an end, we take a look back at the oil industry’s greatest hits in California.  

1. We didn’t start the fire. But Torrance did.

The Torrance Refinery has an excessive flaring problem. In fact, its flaring problem is so bad it had to have a talking to from local air quality regulators this fall. In 2016, the refinery had three serious flaring incidents, each caused by a power outage. (When the power goes out, the refinery can't refine and, in order to avoid a dangerous build up, they burn off excess fuel - at the expense of the air and community.) In March, a balloon hit a power line and triggered two giant fireballs, and in the fall, the refinery had two separate flaring events in the span of just over a month, one of which was so severe they had to close down the streets and ask people not to leave their homes.

And this isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2015, Torrance accidentally leaked a deadly gas (don’t worry - no one died) and caused an explosion that registered 1.7 on the Richter scale.

That’s not very neighborly.

2. Oops!...I spilled it again

Different year, same problem. Big Oil still can’t seem to figure out how to keep oil inside of pipelines and not on fire. Here are some of the year’s top Big Oil oopsies in California:

  • May 24: A pipeline owned by Shell Pipelines ruptured near Tracy, spilling 20,000 gallons of crude. Having Deja Vu? That’s because only eight months earlier, the same pipeline ruptured in a similar location.

  • June 23: 30,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from an open pipeline valve in Ventura. The company responsible was Crimson Pipeline. Turns out they’re no stranger to oil spills - this was their 11th since 2006.

  • August 5: A storage tank holding 1,700 gallons of oil exploded East of Ojai, injuring two workers and unleashing a 15-foot tall fireball.

  • September 21: Two sprawling oil slicks from the Phillips 66 Refinery were discovered in San Pablo Bay after dozens of people were sickened by a noxious odor.
  • October 1: A malfunctioning valve on an oil well caused a fire and a 40-gallon oil spill on the Oxnard Plain. This happened because the valve sent the oil into a flare stack instead of a pipeline. Whoopsie!

3. A little too ironic, we really do think

Although nothing in Alanis Morissette's song Ironic is actually an example of irony, what the South Coast Air Quality Management’s board did this year is. SCAQMD is the air pollution control agency for Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County and Riverside County, a region that regularly fails to meet federal clean air standards. When the board came under a Republican majority this year, they ousted the executive officer (who was actually trying to improve air quality), and voted to adopt an industry-friendly proposal that would weaken clean air rules.

Black fly in your chardonnay? Not ironic. Having the words “Air Quality Management” in your job title and voting against measures to improve it? Ironic. And messed up.

4. California Oil Lobby makes it rain

A lot of shocking things happened in 2016. But the exorbitant amount of money the California Oil Lobby spent wasn’t a surprise. The lobby spent $10.9 million in 2016, and a whooping $32.4 million in the 2015-2016 legislative session. That’s the equivalent of dropping a cool $50,750 daily since January 1, 2015. Here are a couple of the issues they poured a lot of Benjamins into in 2016:

  • Measure Z - a proposal to ban fracking, wastewater injection, and all new oil drilling in Monterey County. Other California counties have passed fracking bans, but Monterey ranks fourth in the state in oil production, so you can imagine that Big Oil was pushing pretty hard to keep this from passing. Which made it that much sweeter when voters gave it the green light in November.

  • Chevron Cheryl - oil interests dropped close to $875,000 into the campaign of Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown. Since Republicans are an endangered species in much of California, moderate democrats have become Big Oil’s best hope. They put their money on Brown because in 2015, she didn’t support SB 350 until the provision about reducing petroleum use by 50 percent was removed. But Californians were quick to see through the oil-funded BS, dubbed her #ChevronCheryl, and voted for the other gal. 


5. Is it too late now for Shell to say sorry?

This spring, a judge found Shell guilty of engaging in fraud and manipulation to drive up day-to-day energy prices during the power crisis in 2001. Californians ended up overpaying Shell by $779 million. To add some salt to that wound, taped phone conversations caught traders joking about whether or not they had ethical problems with the rolling blackouts caused by their schemes, saying “I don’t know how honest that is, but we’re not in the honesty game, are we?”

Hey, at least that’s a point we all agree upon. We’re looking forward to the $1.1 billion Shell and a partner company, Iberdrola, will have to pay if this judge’s decision stands.

6. Porter Ranch: More than a feeling

Sadly, although the Porter Ranch methane leak started in 2015, it is still a top story in 2016. SoCalGas, the party responsible for the largest methane leak in US history, capped the leak on February 18th - but not before displacing thousands of residents and causing an unconscionable amount of climate damage. Aliso Canyon storage facility, the site of the leak, also had the nerve to leak a handful of other times this year, causing many to demand that the entire facility be shut down.

The other important part of this saga is the impact this leak has had on the lives of Porter Ranch residents. When residents returned home after the leak was sealed, many began to have the same health issues they experienced when the leak was active.

There is also the question of long-term health impacts and what the exposure to methane, benzene and other chemicals could mean for residents in the long run.

To top it off, when SoCal Gas reached a settlement for the criminal charges against it, the total came to a mere $4 million. Insult to injury. What a fun year.

7. Don’t drink the water

You’ve probably heard something about a drought happening in these parts. So it makes good sense that Big Oil did its damnedest in 2016 to compromise as many of our drinking water sources as it could get its hands on.

  • People in California's Central Valley could be drinking water tainted by cancer-causing chemicals used in oilfields, and current water-testing procedures would not detect these substances, according to a scientific report released by researchers at PSE Healthy Energy, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California and the University of the Pacific.

  • DOGGR, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources applied to the EPA for an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act so oil company Freeport-McMoRan could drill hundreds of new oil wells and dump its wastewater into a protected aquifer near San Luis Obispo.

  • Putting one aquifer at risk isn’t enough to satisfy DOGGR. A few months later, they asked the EPA to exempt 60 underground aquifers in Monterey, Ventura, Kern and other counties.
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