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Idle oil wells leaking methane near Bakersfield were ordered to be plugged weeks ago


The state has cited the company for dozens of violations since 2017.

Last week, environmental groups raised the alarm about two idle oil wells in Kern County that were found to be leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas and potential threat to public health. The wells, which have been out of production for years but have yet to be permanently sealed, are located just a few hundred feet away from homes in the Morningstar Ranch area of northeast Bakersfield.

In a letter submitted last Thursday to state oil, gas and air regulators, representatives of the advocacy groups demanded immediate action from state oil and gas regulators to fix the leaks and permanently seal the wells. They also wrote that an inspector revealed that one well’s methane readings reached maximum detectable levels, which are known to be potentially explosive.

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and a co-author on the letter, said he’s concerned about public safety near the wells. “It’s typically the case that wells are not just leaking methane but other substances that are harmful to your health like volatile organic compounds,” he said.

In a statement, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the state’s oil and gas supervisor with the Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), confirmed the wells are leaking but stated the situation does not amount to an emergency. “The pinhole-sized leaks have been determined to be minor in nature and do not pose an immediate threat to public health or safety,” the statement reads. “CalGEM is working with the operator to secure a contractor to plug the leaks as soon as possible.”

Weeks before these leaks were detected, CalGEM had already ordered operator Sunray Petroleum to permanently plug and abandon these and 26 other idle wells. The order, submitted on May 2,shows that the company owes more than $85,000 in idle well fees and has not completed well testing plans for years. Since 2017, the operator has also been the subject of dozens of violations, for a laundry list of issues including for failing to maintain equipment near idle wells and failing to dispose of oilfield waste.

“The Wells and Facilities are deteriorating due to lack of maintenance and are a potential threat to life, health, safety and/or natural resources,” reads the order submitted by CalGEM to Sunray Petroleum on May 2. “CalGEM does not have any records from Operator demonstrating that the violations were corrected.”

The company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011, has appealed CalGEM’s plug and abandon order,requesting time to demonstrate the corrective actions they’ve taken in response to their past violations.

Beyond permanently sealing these wells, Kretzmann argued that regulators need to take action on tens of thousands of other idle wells throughout the state,many of which have been shown to be leaking methane and other gases. “California needs to crack down on operators who have been letting these wells just sit there unattended and make sure that they’re plugged responsibly and that the site is restored,” he said.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.