Community Leads Regulators to More Methane-Spewing Wells in Morningstar Neighborhood

Abandoned & Idled Wells Pose Significant Safety Threats to Frontline Communities Across CA After Decades of Neglect

May 24, 2022

Contact:

Cesar Aguirre, (661) 979-2721, cesar.aguirre@ccejn.org

Kobi Naseck, 214-609-2439, kobi@vision-ca.org

Bakersfield, CA –  While onsite to verify that two abandoned oil wells in a residential neighborhood were no longer pouring methane into the community since being sealed on Friday, inspectors with the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) uncovered four more leaking wells. Emissions at each of the newly discovered wells peaked the inspectors’ methane-monitoring devices at 50,000 ppm, the highest level recordable, while actual concentrations could be higher. This puts the homes just 400 feet away in immediate danger as methane at these levels can be explosive. Methane leakage also indicates that other harmful chemicals are likely present in the gas, including carcinogenic compounds such as benzene and toluene. The inspection further revealed a host of additional health and safety violations, including but not limited to missing wellheads, lack of pressure gauges, missing bolts on wellheads, and cellars full of fluid. Households in the surrounding area report suffering from headaches, nausea, and dizziness, and one family has fled their home for safety. Due to the viscosity of the oil underground, air quality regulators claim their regulations do not apply. No agency has issued a warning to nearby residents of the pressing health and safety risks, however, an unnamed CalGEM engineer said to the Desert Sun that the situation is “a ticking time bomb.”

Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods (VISIÓN), a coalition of environmental justice organizations, demands:

(1) CalGEM and the SJVAPCD immediately alert the community to the ongoing health and safety risks; 

(2) CalGEM and California air regulators immediately inspect the pressure and safety of the field, including inspecting all 200 wells in the area;

(3) CalGEM plug and abandon the leaking wells as soon as possible;

(4) CalGEM remedy the health and safety risk these wells present statewide by confirming their ongoing setbacks rulemaking process applies to existing wells; 

(5) CARB and the SJVAPCD update their oil and gas rules to eliminate all loopholes that prevent them from taking action to fix leaks such as this; 

(6) SJVAPCD and CARB record and publicly release all inspection reports; and

(7) CalGEM pursue aggressive enforcement of the operator to recoup well remediation costs, and require the Sunray Inc., Appeal process to be made public and livestreamed.

“This level of methane emissions within a few hundred feet of homes is an urgent public health issue,” said David J.X. González, PhD, an environmental epidemiologist and President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California Berkeley. “Researchers have found that methane emissions from abandoned wells, which are disproportionately located in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, likely means other air toxics 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.” 

While community groups recently uncovered this catastrophe, CalGEM has known that the well owners, SunRay Petroleum, Inc, have 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 this past week. The Order was issued in response to a failure to pay idle well fees and submit an Idle Well Testing Compliance work plan as well as numerous oilfield-related violations ranging from missing well signs, cellars full of fluid, missing bolts on wellheads, to out-of-service facility requirements not being satisfied. Sunray Petroleum, Inc., appealed that order on May 13 and the matter will be heard by an administrative law judge.

While the surrounding community has not been notified of the health and safety risks by any public agency, Cesar Aguirre from VISIÓN member group Central California Environmental Justice Network canvassed over 150 homes in the surrounding area to alert residents to the leaks. One family living nearby to the wells reported suffering from headaches, nausea, and dizziness for the past few weeks. Other residents could explicitly discern the smell of gas. Another family has evacuated to safety. 

“The response from CalGEM, CARB, and the local San Joaquín Valley Air District show complete disrespect for the safety of this community,” said Nayamin Martinez, Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “Nobody from the government is communicating anything to residents about these health risks. California government agencies have so many resources and they all fall short in informing the communities whose health is at risk. Why is it always up to us?” 

Normally, oil wells develop increasing pressure due to the buildup of gas in the pipes and this pressurized gas is collected or flared to avoid explosions. At this site, most wells had none of the required infrastructure to detect, collect or flare gas, nor any pressure gauges to determine their explosive potential. Adding insult to injury, the wells are in an open field with dry grass and they are officially classified as “critical wells,” meaning they’re within 300 ft of a building intended for human occupancy.

A CalGEM agency engineer said to the Desert Sun that with the two wells recently capped, “What’s happening underground should be a major concern.” The staffer said both the hurried repairs done on the first two wells and the so-far unchecked leaking from four more wells could mean large amounts of the explosive gas may be seeping through natural cracks or pipes below ground and building up to dangerous levels under or near homes. “With potentially damaged wells close to residents,” the staffer explained, “it’s a ticking time bomb.”

“When I found out about the situation, I was shocked”  said Cesar Aguirre, Senior Community Organizer for the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “There’s no fence to protect community members, missing signs, missing bolts on the well heads, and one of the sites didn’t even have a wellhead. It’s industry standard to check on idle wells every month, but it’s clear nobody from the state had been to this site in decades. It’s like a graveyard.”

Due to the supposed viscosity of the crude oil underground, CARB and the Air District’s methane rules limiting fugitive well emissions do not apply. 

“Our reality, especially in places like Kern, LA, and Ventura counties, is that there are hundreds of thousands of ticking time bombs in the form of abandoned oil and gas sites. Together, these abandoned sites put the more than two million Californians living within a kilometer of wellheads at serious risk every day, and it’s past time for CalGEM to do something about it” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator, Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “The Morningstar wells have been inactive for almost forty years, and we have no idea how long they – or any other of the 150,000+ abandoned and idle wells in the state – have been leaking methane. We need the health and safety setbacks rule to apply to existing wellsites to prevent any future neighborhood catastrophes like this from happening again.” 
Maricruz Ramirez, Community Organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment concluded, “We cannot continue to allow greedy oil operators to come directly into our neighborhoods, disregard regulations, profit off harming our communities’ health, and then walk away from the harm they’ve caused. They need to be held accountable for oil well remediation and decommissioning to restore the land. Taxpayers should not be left with the burden of paying for this clean-up.”