Tehachapi News

State regulators focus on possible methane leaks at Kern oil wells

- BY JOHN COX jcox@bakersfiel­d.com

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States