State regulators focus on possible methane leaks at Kern oil wells
California’s recent focus on plugging methane leaks from orphan oil wells is about to move from a statewide perspective to the local level with a meeting this week on where Kern County and Bakersfield officials think remediation work should begin.
A meeting set for Monday with representatives of the California Geologic Energy Management Division was expected to go over a recent assessment, based on criteria like past problems and proximity to homes, that found Kern has by far the state’s greatest concentration of potentially leaky wells deemed most urgent to address.
As one of at least five such meetings across California, the conference will help guide decisions on where regulators will spend some $125 million in federal and state money set aside for plugging and properly abandoning oil and gas wells that pose health, environmental, groundwater contamination and other risks from uncontrolled methane releases.
The statewide effort gained momentum last year after 45 wells in and around Bakersfield were found to have been leaking methane at indeterminate rates and durations. While those facilities have since been addressed — more than once, in several cases, because of recurring leaks — a permanent solution involving pouring cement into bores can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per job.
Orphan wells, defined as unsealed bores whose operators have long since walked away, have proliferated as California’s oil reservoirs have gradually declined since the mid1980s. The state estimates there are 5,300 such wells across California.
The industry’s view has been that the Newsom administration is trying to score political points by focusing on a problem that presents minimal health threats and releases less methane than dairies and landfills. A leading trade group has noted large oil producers plug and abandon wells on a state-mandated schedule but that smaller operators sometimes can’t afford to properly cap their idle facilities.
Climate action and environmental justice groups argue more should be done to guard the planet against unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions while protecting communities from health problems associated with breathing large amounts of methane, including adverse birth outcomes, heart disease and respiratory problems such as asthma.
Last fall, in recognition of the limited money available for plugging and abandonment work, CalGEM came up with a system for ranking wells that pose the greatest risks. It prioritized wells within 3,200 feet of sensitive sites like homes and schools, those with a history of leaks or failed casing, or which lack information on possible links to groundwater.
Based on those criteria, CalGEM recently released an interactive map ranking orphan wells to be addressed. It shows three of the highest-priority wells are in Northern California, one is in Ventura County, one in San Joaquin County, about two dozen are in the Los Angeles Basin — and more than four dozen exist in Kern.
Among the latter, the highest concentration, with 33 orphan wells considered highest priority, are clustered in northwest Bakersfield.
Suggestions for state action on local orphan wells surfaced years before last year’s leaks came to light. In 2015, the Kern’s Board of Supervisors asked CalGEM to prioritize plugging and abandonment work within the county, said Lorelei Oviatt, director of the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department.
“At that time a large percentage of the orphan well funding came from our oil companies’ activities operating here and we were not prioritized. Instead, coastal communities received most of the work,” Oviatt said. She added that the county has not identified concerns about methane leaks, notwithstanding wells under the jurisdiction of the city of Bakersfield.
Once CalGEM finalizes its list of wells deserving first attention, the agency plans to present it for public review. Meanwhile, work continues by a state methane task force convened last summer to address leaks from California oil and gas infrastructure. The group comprises the California Air Resources Board, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, the California Natural Resources Agency and CalGEM’s parent agency, the Department of Conservation.
During the task force’s third public meeting, presented online Tuesday, the Air Resources Board provided an update on its effort to launch satellites that will circle the planet 15 times per day using hyperspectral imagers to identify methane plumes around the state.