by Nayamin Martinez
Tuesday June 13, 2023, nine community members from various communities met virtually to hear updates about a project that will help them improve the indoor air quality in their homes; but while 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 this 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.
Mrs. Garcia was referring to the updates that residents in Arvin and Lamont received from the Methane Task force, comprised of the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Special inspections conducted by the two agencies at the end of May discovered 27 idle oil wells leaking Methane; these wells are located within 3,200 feet of homes, and 3 of them are within 1,000 feet of schools. Elvia’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 deja 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 nearby homes that were under 300 feet away. The leaks were sealed but in the aftermath of last year’s discovery we all knew the story would repeat over, and over again. Why? Because there are more than ten thousand idle wells throughout California that could be dangerous and because last year CALGEM recognized publicly that they did not have the capacity to inspect all abandoned wells to verify they were properly sealed. Furthermore, CALGEM’s ability to enforce the compliance of existing rules and to ensure that companies fix leaks and plug abandoned wells properly, has been extremely 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 have been violating CALGEM rules since 2017, and when CALGEM issued an order to this company to plug the abandoned wells, Sunray Petroleum, 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. CalGEM will pay contractors to fix the wells. Supposedly, these repairs will be paid for from a fund covered by industry fees. Well, my 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 not enough, 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 last year were discovered. The Methane Task Force was formed, they have been conducting more inspections to identify leaks and prevent tragedies. That is how the Arvin-Lamont leaks were discovered. But the state needs bolder actions to protect public safety and our economy, some of these actions should include:
- 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 are identified, test for carcinogenic volatile organic compounds that sometimes accompany methane releases
- Immediate moratorium of new permits or rework permits for wells within 3,200 feet of sensitive receptors
Governor Newsom prides himself as a leader of innovative climate policies and champion of protecting disadvantaged communities. We recognized that he has rightfully taken a stand against Big Oil by curbing gas-price gouging, signing the most ambitious safe and safety setbacks between oil operations and sensitive receptors, and asserting the people’s interest over corporate profits, but it is not enough. Frontline residents in Arvin, Lamont, Bakersfield, and many other parts across California deserve to live free of Methane and other cancer-causing gases.