A Ticking Bomb in Arvin-Lamont

A Ticking Bomb in Arvin-Lamont
The cleaning of abandoned oil pumps and wells is the responsibility of the companies that own the wells, but they are not following through on that. Photo by Eduardo Stanley

On June 13, nine persons from various communities met virtually to hear updates about a project that will help them improve the indoor air quality in their homes. Although getting filters for their swamp coolers and air monitors to measure the air quality inside and outside their homes might sound relevant to residents in Huron, Avenal and Coalinga, Arvin residents who joined the meeting were worried about a more urgent problem: 27 idle oil wells were found leaking methane gas, some at explosive levels.

“What is going to happen to my family, to my house? What are they going to do?” asked Elvia Garcia.

Garcia was referring to updates that residents in Arvin and Lamont received from the Methane Task Force, which comprises the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) and the California Air Resources Board. Special inspections conducted by the two agencies at the end of May discovered the 27 idle oil wells leaking methane. Those wells are within 3,200 feet of homes, and three are within 1,000 feet of schools.

Garcia’s fear is justified as these leaks are indeed a danger to public health, and the explosive levels in some places are an imminent public safety risk.

If you are feeling déjà vu, thinking you have read this story before, it is because you have. A year ago, we reported massive methane leaks in 45 wells in Bakersfield that posed an immediate danger to homes that were less than 300 feet away. The leaks were sealed, but in the aftermath of last year’s discovery we all knew the story would repeat.

Why? There are more than 10,000 idle wells throughout California that could be dangerous, and last year CalGEM recognized publicly that it did not have the capacity to inspect all the abandoned wells to verify if they were properly sealed.

Furthermore, CalGEM’s ability to enforce the compliance of existing rules and ensure that companies fix leaks and plug abandoned wells properly has been limited as evidenced by what happened last year and again this year.

SunRay Petroleum Inc., one of the operators of the leaks found in 2022, has been violating CalGEM rules since 2017. When CalGEM issued an order to SunRay to plug its abandoned wells, the company appealed the order and the case is pending in court.

This year, the parties responsible for 11 of the leaking wells have indicated they do not intend to fix them. Therefore, CalGEM will pay contractors to fix the wells. Supposedly, these repairs will be paid for from a fund covered by industry fees.

Well, fellow taxpayers, let’s pray that this fund is huge because experts estimate that cleaning up decommissioned oil and gas infrastructure in California could cost $21.5 billion! If California’s leaders don’t ensure that Big Oil cleans up its own toxic mess, the public health and safety dangers will only worsen and if that fund is insufficient, our public dollars will have to pay the difference.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that some things have improved since the leaks in Bakersfield were discovered last year. The Methane Task Force was formed, and it has been conducting more inspections to identify leaks and prevent tragedies. That is how the Arvin-Lamont leaks were discovered.

However, the state needs bolder actions to protect public safety and our economy. These actions should include the following:

  • Order CalGEM to urgently plug all leaking wells across the state.
  • Give CalGEM more authority to deal with operators that refuse to fix leaks.
  • Establish a notification system to alert residents who live close to the leaking wells.
  • In locations where methane is identified, test for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds that sometimes accompany methane releases.
  • Implement an immediate moratorium on new permits or rework permits for wells within 3,200 feet of sensitive receptors.

Governor Gavin Newsom prides himself as a leader of innovative climate policies and champion of protecting disadvantaged communities. We recognize that he has rightfully taken a stand against Big Oil by curbing gas-price gouging, signed the legislation for the most ambitious safety setbacks between oil operations and sensitive receptors, and asserted the people’s interest over corporate profits, but that is not enough.

Frontline residents in Arvin, Lamont, Bakersfield and many other areas of California deserve to live free of methane and other cancer-causing gasses.


Nayamin Martinez is the executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network.

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The cleaning of abandoned oil pumps and wells is the responsibility of the companies that own the wells, but they are not following through on that. Photo by Eduardo Stanley


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