Los Angeles, CA — State approvals for permits to fix or deepen existing oil wells skyrocketed in the second quarter by 124% over the same time last year, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance said today. Some of the permit approvals by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) are for idle wells and wells that barely produce, and both types can leak deadly methane and other harmful pollutants. The permits are posted on a map at www.newsomwellwatch.com
“These are permit approvals to rework old wells that the oil industry wants to squeeze dry,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “The state makes it far cheaper for oil companies to continue beating a dead horse than cement those wells shut, including wells that will never come back online or only produce 10 or 15 barrels of crude a day. State policy is misguided. Newsom should mandate that any wells near or in neighborhoods and any that are idle for more than a few years or barely producing oil should be shuttered to stop and prevent leaks.”
In the last few months, Bakersfield residents have discovered more than 40 idle wells leaking methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) belonging to five different oil companies in suburban subdivisions of Bakersfield. Residents experienced fatigue, headaches and stomachaches. VOCs can negatively affect breathing, the nervous system and cause cancer.
“This can be attributed to CalGEM's policy of conducting many of their inspections remotely from regulators’ desks, rather than conducting in-person inspections at the well sites in the field,” said Kyle Ferrar, a coordinator for FracTracker Alliance. "Oil and gas companies can use these reworks to continue to kick the bucket down the road instead of paying the necessary costs to plug these idle wells. That's because there is very little oversight from CalGEM and no repercussions for leaking wells, as we have seen in Bakersfield."
CalGEM just announced late yesterday that it will review the practice of conducting inspections remotely. But the Newsom Administration has not undertaken a broader review of idle well policies that allow unproductive leaking wells to stay open for decades by charging oil producers fees far lower than they would otherwise have to pay to shutter them.
Second quarter permit approvals pushed the overall number of oil drilling permits approved since Newsom came to office in January 2019 to 11,669. During the second quarter, permit approvals to drill both new oil and gas production wells and wells using harsh and dangerous methods of extraction known as “enhanced oil recovery” (EOR), fell by half over the second quarter last year though permits to specifically drill new EOR wells rose by 10%. See Table 1.
Table 1. CalGEM Permit Approval Data Analyzed by FracTracker Alliance
Of all 2022 permit approvals to rework wells, 31% were issued for idle wells, according to FracTracker Alliance. Available data makes it hard to determine how long the wells have been idle. Legislation passed several years ago requires to provide an annual list of idle wells, their age, and their status. CalGEM published the last report in 2019 and has not published another since.
According to oil industry information gathered by the California Council on Science and Technology, there are at least 70,000 idle wells in the state, and many are 20-40 years old. Some have been idle for 80 years. That's 40,000 more idle wells than officially reported by CalGEM, according to FracTracker Alliance.
“It is critically important that the public has access to the list of ide wells as many could be leaking in urban and suburban settings and residents don’t even know that they are there,” said Tucker. “There are tens of thousands of these wells and they can be like ticking time-bombs for nearby communities.”
Hazardous spill reports filed by CalGEM showed some of the Bakersfield wells were releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, at concentrations of above 50,000 parts per million. These are public health hazards as, at these outdoor concentrations, just the click of a lighter can cause an explosion and the same indoor levels can be deadly to residents, according to PSE Healthy Energy, a research institute.
Community residents have pressured CalGEM to cap the wells to protect public safety. Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the state oil and gas supervisor, said in an online update that a few of the wells had “pinhole-sized leaks” that were “minor.” A whistleblower speaking to a print media outlet said that Ntuk was “lying;” that no one had evaluated the safety of the leaking wells and the holes in their casings still pose a danger.
“Rather than approving rework permits to keep these aging and corroding wells operational, CalGEM needs to require oil and gas operators to properly plug and abandon these wells and remediate the well sites,” said FracTracker’s Ferrar. “Additionally, CalGEM should not be permitting new oil and gas wells, particularly near homes and communities. Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance urge Governor Newsom to require operators to plug and abandon these existing wells and to institute a 3,200-foot public health setback to keep future extraction and leaking oil and gas wells and their infrastructure away from people, homes, and communities.”
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