Bakersfield, CA — An inspector from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District confirmed that two idled oil wells next to residential neighborhoods in Bakersfield are leaking massive volumes of methane. One well showed emissions at a minimum of 50,000 parts per million (ppm), the maximum level the inspector’s device could record, and another well at the same site is leaking methane at or over 20,000 ppm.
The two wells are located approximately 370 feet from homes. It is unclear how long the wells have been leaking. Records show that the wells have been idle since 1988 and 1982, but were not properly plugged after oil production stopped.
California faces a massive threat from thousands of toxic oil and gas wells across the state that are no longer in use, known as idle wells. These wells threaten the health of frontline communities, harm our climate and hurt taxpayers and local governments who are saddled with large cleanup costs. Idle oil and gas wells can allow harmful fluids and dangerous gasses to migrate to the surface, causing water contamination, air pollution, and even deadly explosions. In many cases, idle oil and gas wells in the state are located in communities that are already overburdened with pollution, further contributing to environmental injustice. One study estimated that two-thirds of idle wells in California are leaking methane. Additionally there are not currently any California regulations that exist to address these leaks. The operators are free to allow these leaks to continue in perpetuity. While the Air District quickly responded to and confirmed the leak, the district stated that due to the nature of the field and the gravity of the oil, their current regulations don't require the operator to address or fix the leaks.
Methane concentration of 50,000 ppm is explosive. Methane is also a powerful greenhouse gas more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and is often emitted alongside other harmful pollutants. As methane leaks, so do other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs form smog and worsen asthma, harm our lungs, and reduce immune function. VOCs include toxic pollutants such as BTEX (Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes) chemicals that can cause cancer, harm the nervous system and cause birth defects. In Kern County, one in three residents live within one mile of an oil or gas well, specifically targeting communities who are already grappling with health threats from air pollution, drinking water contamination and exposure to pesticides.
The well’s owner, Sunray Petroleum, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and has had numerous violations for unpaid fees and inadequate pollution monitoring that have been close to schools and communities. This lack of accountability and funds to pay for the cleanup of these wells has led to a larger problem in California where the required bond amounts for oil and gas wells — the money drilling companies have to provide before being allowed to drill a new well — are woefully inadequate to cover the costs of cleaning up the sites. The discovery of these wells exposes just how toxic oil and gas operations located near neighborhoods are and is evidence of the way that oil and gas operators routinely disregard regulations and harm generations of Californians.
CalGEM (California Geologic Energy Management Division), is currently working on a rulemaking for 3,200-ft health and safety setbacks that would prohibit the permitting of future wells located within the setback zone, which may prevent future Sunray Petroleum cases. However the rule is currently silent on existing wells, meaning that there could be hundreds of toxic sites next door to homes and schools that are still allowed to pollute just like this one.
"This leaking well is a testament to the urgent need for setbacks,” said Cesar Aguirre, Central California Environmental Justice Network senior organizing representative. “This is a well leaking from a company that went bankrupt in 2011, leaving its abandoned well to leak unchecked. No one knows how long this has been happening, and there are thousands of wells just like this that will have not been discovered because of lack of enforcement. California needs to do better. We need setbacks to realistically protect communities. Trusting enforcement alone to be effective has caused huge impacts, like the cymric oil spill, and this leaking well.”
“How long have these wells been leaking and how many more of them are right outside our houses? We need CalGEM and the California Air Resources Board to protect our health and safety, they should be making this serious issue their first priority,” said Mercedes Macias, Sierra Club senior organizing representative based in Kern County. “This recent development is why now more than ever we need a 3200-foot health and safety buffer zone between fossil-fuel infrastructure and homes, schools, parks and prisons that will apply to both active and idle oil wells, along with a moratorium on any new permitting within the 3200-foot setback zone. If our leaders continue to let these idle wells release significant amounts of methane, we will never be seriously able to tackle environmental injustice or the climate crisis in California."
“We’ve been trying to get the state to address idle orphan wells for years.” said Maricruz Ramirez, a community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. “All these issues have been brought up time and time again, and we’re sure this is not a unique occurrence among the thousands of idle oil and gas wells that go unchecked every year. The state can’t continue to drag their feet on matters like this while simultaneously preaching their climate leadership.”
“State oil and gas regulators need to take emergency action to stop this leak and secure this dangerous well,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The methane hiss from this well should be in the ear of California regulators until every last leak is checked and plugged. Operators are required to plug leaky wells under the law, but lax regulation means nobody’s making them do it. We need action on the tens of thousands of aging and idle wells threatening Californians’ health and our climate.”
About the Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person's right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.