An abandoned well in the Bakersfield area. Dozens of such wells have leaked high levels of methane, posing a serious danger of explosion and sicknesses to local residents. Photo by Cesar Aguirre

Ticking Bomb in Bakersfield: Abandoned Oil Wells

Imagine that someone knocks at your door and tells you that in a lot next to your home there are abandoned oil wells leaking massive amounts of methane that could be explosive. Or even worse, that your house was built over abandoned wells that might also be leaking.

That was not a hypothetical scenario for residents of the Morningstar neighborhood in northeast Bakersfield in late May.

It all started when a man walking through an open field near the Morningstar homes noticed an audible hissing coming from an abandoned well.

The regulatory agencies that have oversight authority over the oil wells—the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (Air District) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB)—were immediately notified, and inspectors were sent to the area.

The Air District inspectors confirmed two methane leaks. One well showed emissions at a minimum of 50,000 parts per million (ppm), the maximum level the inspector’s device could record, and another well at the same site was leaking methane at more than 20,000 ppm.

These leaks posed an immediate danger to nearby homes less than 400 feet away as methane at these levels can be explosive. Furthermore, methane leakage indicates that other harmful chemicals are likely present in the gas, including carcinogenic compounds such as benzene and toluene.

Luckily, these two initial leaks were discovered and the wells sealed before an explosion occurred. However, this discovery was the tip of a massive iceberg.

Over the next few days, more than a dozen wells in the area were found to be leaking including a neighborhood affected by the Fruitvale oil field. CalGEM and local operators are working to repair all the wells to stop the leaks. 

The onslaught of leaking wells illustrates the problems that result from the negligence of oil and gas companies, the poor oversight of regulatory agencies and the loopholes in existing regulations. Sadly, these issues leave thousands of residents who live near oil and gas operations unprotected and their health and safety at risk.

For residents of Bakersfield, there are more leaking wells but it is not known where all of them are. CalGEM states that it does not have an understanding of where all the leaking wells are or the resources to find them.

Moreover, there are major loopholes in the mayhem of existing regulations. California decision-makers constantly claim we have the “most stringent measures” in the country for air pollution. Yet, incidents such as these leaking wells show that the regulations are insufficient and include major loopholes.

For example, when the leaks were initially uncovered, air quality regulators claimed their regulations do not apply “due to the viscosity of the oil underground.” Residents’ health is at risk and agencies are caught in the rhetoric that they do not have the authority to address the problem.

In 2014, more than 50 residents in Nelson Court in Arvin were evacuated from their homes due to a pipeline leak. That  incident uncovered a major loophole in the authority of the former DOGGER, now CalGEM, to regulate oil and gas pipelines. It took new legislation to fix that problem.

Protecting public health and informing residents must be the main priority when such incidents happen. In the aftermath of the recent leaks, regulatory agencies did not take a proactive approach to informing residents.

Although community groups recently uncovered this catastrophe, CalGEM has known that the owner of the first leaking wells discovered, Sunray Petroleum, Inc., has been out of compliance with its regulations since 2017.

On May 2, CalGEM issued an order to Sunray Petroleum to plug the abandoned wells, decommission production facilities and restore well sites for 28 idle wells, including the ones found last month. Sunray Petroleum appealed that order on May 13, and the matter will be heard by an administrative law judge.

It is not enough for CalGEM to take these negligent operators to court and make them pay. It needs to be doing more to inspect other abandoned wells and inform residents whose health might be affected. For example, households in the surrounding area report suffering from headaches, nausea, memory problems, fatigue and dizziness, and at least one family fled their home for safety.

These health problems were identified not by regulators but rather by staff from the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), who visited 150 homes in the surrounding area to alert residents to the leaks.

The rhetoric from regulatory agencies, including the chief of CalGEM, Uduak-Joe Ntuk, is that methane does not pose a health risk. That is not what scientists think. According to David J.X. González, Ph.D., an environmental epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, “high levels of methane emissions within a few hundred feet of homes is an urgent public health issue.”

Researchers have found that methane emissions from abandoned wells, which are disproportionately located in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, likely mean that other air toxins are being emitted too, which can cause birth defects, neurological damage, impaired hearing and some cancers. This raises concerns for the estimated hundreds of thousands of other abandoned wells across the state, most of which are not regularly monitored for health-harming or greenhouse gas emissions.

Several environmental justice organizations have asked that

  • CalGEM remedy the health and safety risk these wells present statewide by confirming that their ongoing setback rulemaking process applies to existing wells;
  • The CARB and the Air District update their oil and gas rules to eliminate all loopholes that prevent them from taking action to address leaks such as this; and
  • CalGEM acknowledges the health impacts associated with leaking oil wells and conducts a health assessment to identify potential health problems in affected communities.

In the meantime, the CCEJN and other advocates will continue to watchdog the work of CalGEM, the CARB and the Air District while walking the affected neighborhoods to let residents know how to identify and report potential leaks or other violations from oil and gas companies and related industries.

  • Cesar Aguirre is a community organizer with the CCEJN, a Bakersfield resident and a co-founder of the Youth vs. Big Oil statewide coalition.

  • Genevieve Amsalem is the research and policy director for the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) and formerly led the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition.

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

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