Los Angeles County Forms Just-Transition Taskforce to Clean Up Old Oil Wells

Today, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to enact a just-transition task force focused on plugging and remediating nonproductive oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county. This historic vote advances a just transition as a critical component to addressing the intersecting issues of climate justice, economic justice, and public health. 

Idle oil and gas wells are wells that have not produced oil in more than two years and have not yet been properly plugged and cleaned up. Idle wells pose a host of risks to our community. For example, harmful fluids and dangerous gases may migrate to the surface in idle wells, causing water and soil contamination and deadly explosions. The longer wells remain idle, the more dangerous they become. Idle wells can also cause significant climate pollution. They can leak methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide in driving climate change. On top of these significant environmental and public health risks, idle wells pose a huge financial risk to taxpayers and local governments. Without strong regulatory action, oil and gas companies may succeed in avoiding their obligations to clean up these wells while handing taxpayers the bill for plugging, abandonment, and remediation of wells and oil field sites.

According to data from the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), there are 1,046 active wells, 637 idle wells, and 2,731 abandoned wells across the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Many of these wells may have been improperly abandoned or have been left idle for long periods of time. There are 35,000 idle wells in California, and the number of idle wells is increasing as production drops due to historically low oil prices. 

“It is undisputable that the impacts of climate change are profound and that the need to transition to cleaner, greener sources of energy is urgent. But as we transition, we must ensure it is a just transition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who cosponsored today's motion with Supervisor Janice Hahn. “There are far too many idle and abandoned wells across this county and state that have not been appropriately capped—and if not addressed, can create significant public health and safety impacts. We have an opportunity here to wed our environmental goals with a meaningful workforce agenda.”

Today’s motion to address these wells calls on Los Angeles County agencies to work with a task force that will include direct input from environmental groups and labor unions, including the Sierra Club, Los Angeles and Orange County Building Trades, and United Steelworkers Local 675. Now, the task force and county agencies have 120 days to come up with a plan to develop incentives, enforcement protocols, funding strategies, and legislative advocacy to clean up old fossil fuel infrastructure in LA County.

We need a highly skilled and trained workforce to clean up old fossil fuel infrastructure in a manner that promotes public health and safety and combats climate change. Working with labor unions to address California’s idle wells problem is a critical part of a just transition to a clean, renewable energy system that protects the environment, communities, and workers. Unions, especially those that already supply the workforce for currently operating oil fields, can provide both the training and the personnel with relevant experience. 

Oil field remediation with the creation of family-sustaining, “high road” jobs that provide good wages and benefits, safe working conditions, and training and advancement opportunities is a key part of a truly just transition. To achieve this, Los Angeles County should mandate strong labor standards for jobs in oil well remediation and prioritize hiring and training local workers impacted by job losses in the industry and from communities that have been disproportionately affected by the health and environmental impacts of oil production.

We all deserve a healthy and safe workplace, neighborhood, and environment. The Sierra Club is looking forward to working with Los Angeles County agencies and labor unions on this process. Please thank your LA County supervisor on social media #JustTransitionLA: sc.org/JustTransitionLAToolkit 

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