On the morning of June 21, 2011, a worker named Robert David Taylor was walking through an oil field west of Taft, California, when he noticed a plume of steam coming from the darkened earth. Taylor, 54, was a Chevron supervisor who had spent three decades around Kern County’s Midway-Sunset field, the largest and most productive in the state. He and two co-workers had been dispatched to fix the “chimney” near an idled well known to spew scalding geysers of oil, water, and rocks as high as 40 feet in the air.
California was in the midst of an oil boom. Crude prices had soared above $100 per barrel, and pump jacks, pipes, and power lines snaked across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, about two hours north of Los Angeles. The spouts at Well 20 that day were the result of an increasingly popular technique called cyclic steaming, in which steam is pumped into the earth to dislodge thick, tar-like crude. After a century of extraction, the easy oil was gone, and this was like filling an empty ketchup bottle with water to get the last few drops. It was dangerous work—the intense heat fractured geologic formations to release oil, but it also destabilized the porous earth and created sinkholes.
As Taylor approached the site, the ground gave way. He was sucked feet first into a burbling cauldron of fluids and poison gas. He screamed. A co-worker rushed to reach him with a piece of pipe, but it was too short. Within seconds, Taylor disappeared into the muck. It took 17 hours to recover what remained of his body.
Two hundred and eighty miles north in Sacramento, the news of Taylor’s death shook Elena Miller. As the state’s oil-and-gas supervisor, Miller had been warring with energy companies for the better part of a year over the potential dangers of underground injection—the umbrella term for cyclic steaming and other forms of oil extraction that involve infusing fluids into the earth. Now, she redoubled her efforts, banning steam injection around the accident site and cracking down on new drilling permits. The oil industry was outraged. Hamstrung by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, energy companies were rushing to ramp up production in California, marching steadily out of century-old oil fields and into almond orchards, alfalfa fields, and just about anywhere crude might be found. Miller threatened all of that.
Four months later, she was fired.
Known nationally as a laboratory of progressive values and environmental protection, California is perhaps the last place one would expect Big Oil to hold sway. The state has passed some of the toughest energy regulations in the country and set aggressive new goals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Since the election of Donald Trump, Governor Jerry Brown has positioned California as a bulwark against a new president who sees climate change as a “hoax” and a White House that promises to appoint the most pro-drilling Cabinet in American history. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight,” the governor thundered during a speech in San Francisco in December.