Postcard from California: Idle oil wells threaten health, climate and will cost billions to plug

By Bill Walker

Last June, at commencement ceremonies in the small, heavily Latino town of Arvin, Calif., proud graduates threw their caps in the air. But those gathered at the Arvin High School football field didn’t know there was something else in the air: potentially explosive levels of noxious methane gas leaking from an idle oil well only 400 feet away.

A week before, state inspectors had found that 27 idle wells around Arvin were leaking methane, the main constituent of so-called “natural” gas. More than half – including the well near the football field, which hadn’t produced oil since 1979 – were spewing concentrations of the combustible, colorless, odorless gas. But the community wasn’t told about the leaks until a meeting almost two weeks after graduation.

State regulators’ “woeful lack of enforcement led to the inevitable leaks in our neighborhoods that our communities have warned about for years,” Cesar Aguirre, an organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a press release. He said officials “callously told residents . . . not to worry, leaving them feeling defenseless and willfully put in harm’s way.”

Arvin is in Kern County, the center of California’s oil industry. But idled and leaking oil and gas wells are a statewide crisis whose scope – and the looming cost of closing them – is mind-boggling:

California has more than 35,000 idle wells – wells not in use for at least two years, but not properly plugged and closed – according to the state Geologic Energy Management Division, known as CalGEM. Scientists from Stanford University and the University of California estimate that two-thirds of idle wells are leaking.
A study for CalGEM by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) estimated that more than 5,500 wells are not only idle but may be “orphaned”: Their operators have gone bankrupt and walked away, leaving no one responsible for maintaining or plugging them. The group warned an additional 69,425 wells were in danger of becoming orphaned in the future.
A report last year by the nonprofit Carbon Tracker Initiative estimated the cost to plug and clean up California’s current and future idle and orphan wells at $13.2 billion to $21.5 billion.