How idle oil wells leaked explosive levels of methane in Bakersfield
Cesar Aguirre first became aware of a potential methane leak in Bakersfield about a month ago. He says he heard the news from a resident who said he heard “hissing” coming from an oil well near his home.
And sure enough, after investigation, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, confirmed the report. They found dozens of oil wells in need of remediation, with 21 leaking explosive levels of methane in various Bakersfield neighborhoods. This means the invisible fumes could ignite and endanger residents.
Other impacts from these gas leaks had already taken their toll. When Aguirre, who is a local organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, went door-to-door talking to residents of Bakersfield, people told him about a range of symptoms.
Many residents told him they suffered from dizziness, fatigue and headaches, all evidence of gas exposure.
“Everyone had questions,” he said. “Everyone wanted to know who to call.”
As he visited homes in neighborhoods near the leaks, Aguirre says he offered some basic safety precautions: Keep your windows rolled up and your doors locked. If you smell gas, call 911. He says he was one of the first to do so, driven by fears that if he didn’t spread the word, no one else would. in time to warn residents of significant health and safety risks. .
“I heard this news and in my head I was like, ‘nothing is going to happen for a long time,'” Aguirre said. “Nothing is going to happen fast enough to let these people know they need to protect themselves.”
More than 70% of California’s oil production comes from Kern County, where the city of Bakersfield is located. And many oil-producing wells are near residential communities. Aguirre says that in Bakersfield, there are oil wells “in people’s backyards, in the parking lots of popular malls, in front of restaurant windows.”
These particular leaks came from “idle wells,” a term used to describe a well that once produced oil or gas but was later abandoned by its operator. Recent reports estimate that there are approximately 35,000 unused wells in California.
When improperly abandoned, unused wells can contaminate the air and drinking water. CalGEM has capped 1,400 of these types of wells since 1977, which the state says cost about $29.5 million.
Over the past month, CalGEM has been working to plug leaking wells in Bakersfield. As of June 17, CalGEM had repaired 29 wells and was evaluating next steps for 11 others that had previously been found to be leaking various levels of methane.
Although Aguirre is encouraged by CalGEM’s recent response, he says the situation could have been avoided if action had been taken sooner. A company responsible for some of the unused wells had long delayed orders from CalGEM to plug and abandon them.
“It’s not a wave of wells that we’re barely discovering,” Aguirre says. “[CalGEM wasn’t] take action on this until it becomes an issue in the public eye.
Citing the situation in Bakersfield, advocates gathered in Sacramento on June 14 and called on Governor Gavin Newsom to create a 3,200-foot buffer zone between oil wells and communities. They also demanded that the state suspend all new oil and gas permits.
“Some people even have homes built over abandoned oil and gas wells,” says Ilonka Zlatar, president of 350 Sacramento, which is a local chapter of a national environmental group. “And they are very concerned about what that means for the safety of their families and their homes.”
Zlatar has staged protests at the state capitol to draw attention to the issue. She says advocates want long-term solutions, which extend beyond Bakersfield.
“The overarching problem is that fossil fuel companies simply cannot be trusted,” Zlatar says. “They continue to put the profit on people and on our planet.”
Newsom has addressed abandoned wells in recent weeks. In early June, he offered $200 million to plug abandoned oil wells and decommission facilities. He also proposed an additional $100 million for the creation of methane-sensing satellites that would track methane emissions globally, described in a statement as “essential for California regulators to hold polluters accountable.”
“As we’ve seen right here in California, these oil wells are at risk of leaking at any time,” Newsom said during the announcement.
But Zlatar says she and other activists are asking for more than remedies for existing wells, including a complete shutdown of fossil fuel extraction in California.
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