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California has set carbon-neutrality goals for 2045 in a move away from fossil fuels to combat global warming. Kern County, where oil and gas production is a key industry, is at the epicenter of this transition's push and pull. KVPR News' Joshua Yeager is tracking the developments in the changing energy landscape.

State releases draft plan to plug leaky oil wells, many of them in Kern County

 Francisco Gonzales stands in front of an oil derrick in his Arvin neighborhood. The state announced dozens of leaky wells across the town would be permanently sealed under a plan announced this week.
Joshua Yeager
Francisco Gonzales stands in front of an active oil derrick in his Arvin neighborhood. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that bans new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, parks, hospitals and other sensitive areas.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – California officials unveiled a plan to permanently seal some of the state’s more than 5,000 orphaned oil wells, including dozens nestled among Kern County neighborhoods that have been the focus of advocate attention for decades.

Orphaned wells don’t produce oil or gas and have no responsible owner on the books, according to a definition offered by CalGEM, the state agency that oversees the industry.

The plan’s first phase includes $80 million in funding and would plug 378 wells across the southern half of the state. In Kern, those include many wells near the rural community of Arvin as well as the Morning Star neighborhood in East Bakersfield.

Last year, evacuations in the Morning Star neighborhood prompted the creation of the state’s Methane Task Force and brought national attention to the issue. Orphaned wells are prone to spewing methane – a potent greenhouse gas – and other toxic compounds into the air.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he devoted $100 million in the state budget this year to plug orphaned wells. Ahead of the well sealing frenzy, regulators have spent the past year conducting an inventory of the state’s leaky and abandoned wells.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity right now to address oil and gas wells that have been left behind by operators, and address the real threat these wells pose to California communities,” Courtney Smith, Chief Program Director for the state’s Department of Conservation, said during a Monday meeting announcing the draft plan.

A delayed, but welcomed, move

Advocates in Kern County broadly welcomed the plan to plug wells which communities have wrestled over with regulators for years. But they questioned why it took so long.

“I’m glad it’s finally happening,” said Cesar Aguirre, an advocate with the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “Before, it felt like our complaints, issues and concerns were falling into a void of bureaucracy.”

Last month, regulators with CalGEM and the California Air Resources Board inspected about 60 wells in Arvin near homes, schools and parks. The sweep revealed nearly half of the wells were leaking methane, and about a quarter were leaking at potentially explosive levels.

The owner of many of those wells, Sunray Petroleum LLC, has racked up hundreds of violations over years, and many of its wells have been identified as idle by the state.

While most of the wells were repaired within days to stop the leaks, others were found to be leaking again shortly after contractors had completed the repairs.

“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” said Aguirre. “You can repair a well, but it’s only a matter of time before it starts leaking again and putting our communities’ health and safety at risk.”

“We need permanent solutions,” he added.

Plugging wells is the permanent solution, but it’s an expensive one. Costs average more than $100,000 per well, according to CalGEM estimates.

Fees are collected from producers to theoretically offset those costs, but advocates argue the fees don’t cover the scope of the problem.

“It’s sad that we don’t have a system in place where we can avoid this by making sure [oil] companies have put up enough bonding,” said Liza Tucker with the nonpartisan Consumer Watchdog. “This shouldn’t be the state’s responsibility to have to [plug orphaned wells].”

Pilot project has high expectations

CalGEM officials on Monday said they hope to convert some of the state’s dwindling oil workforce into teams of well-pluggers.

Some of the money in the state budget has been set aside for this purpose, though it remains to be seen how successful the pilot program might be.

“In addition to protecting front-line communities, we’re also supporting job opportunities for Californians in the state’s workforce training pilot to train displaced oil and gas workers,” Conservation Director David Shabazian stated in a news release.

Other communities targeted in the state’s initial plan include Saint James Park in South Central Los Angeles, though operator AllenCo is appealing the state’s order to plug its wells. A 20-day public public comment period on the plan began Monday.

State officials say 40% of the funding will be spent in disadvantaged communities, keeping in line with the federal Justice40 Initiative.

But for Jasmin Martinez, a Kern County resident, 40% isn’t enough.

“I was hoping that number would be a little bit higher,” she said. “The majority of the funds should be in disadvantaged communities.”

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.