On Wednesday, dozens of community residents and environmental justice advocates from the Last Chance Alliance and VISION blocked the entrance to the CA Department of Conservation (DOC) headquarters in downtown Sacramento by erecting props, including wooden oil derricks and tables, to represent what they described as agency’s “negligent process” of desk monitoring through “remote witnessing” of oil wells near homes and schools.
While some activists sat in the “desks,” others carried signs and banners as they chanted through megaphones when they converged on the headquarters of the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, CalGEM, after marching down the street from Roosevelt Park. They demanded that Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Governor Gavin Newsom immediately take action on the ongoing issue of methane leaks from idle oil wells.
The action took place as an analysis by Consumer Watchdog and the Fractracker Alliance revealed that state approvals for permits to fix or deepen existing oil wells skyrocketed in the second quarter by 124% over the same time last year. Meanwhile, second quarter permit approvals pushed the overall number of oil drilling permits approved since Newsom came to office in January 2019 to 11,669.
The activists at the direct action protest called on Crowfoot and Newsom to end what they called CalGEM’s “long history of negligence” including the following:
- Stop “snapshot inspection quotas that CalGEM Whistleblowers say “only drive up numbers on a bar chart and make management look good.”
- Stop all “remote witnessing” of thousands of idle and decades-old toxic well sites and start “robust, in person site inspections.”
- Stop permitting toxic wells within 3200 feet of homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and other sensitive areas.
- Immediately roll out comprehensive 3200 foot setbacks on new and existing oil and gas well sites.
“Our action at CalGEM was a huge success,” said Kobi Naseck of VISION after the protest concluded. “Our message was heard loud and clear. CalGEM is unable to do its job and protect frontline communities. Our communities deserve setbacks now. We call on Governor Newsom and Secretary Wade Crowfoot to pass 3200 foot setbacks now!”
Just last Friday CalGEM noted that previously repaired wells were found leaking again and they discovered even more wells gushing methane, according to Naseck.
Over the last few weeks, the environmental justice advocates said 40 oil wells were found gushing methane as close as 100 yards from homes in North Bakersfield. Rather than immediately alerting nearby residents to this dangerous threat, Naseck noted that community members had to pressure the state oil regulator CalGEM to swiftly cap wells to protect their safety.
He also said whistleblowers have told the press that Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the head of the infamous state agency, was “lying” about the severity of the threats posed by the leaking wells and that, “it's a tragedy. Oversight integrity has gone sideways."
Whistleblowers also admitted that the agency has placed a quota on the amount of wells employees must inspect through “remote witnessing,” a process that allows regulators to avoid in-person inspections of California’s aging oil wells, including those near homes and schools, and instead “monitor” these sites from behind their desks.
Sacramento was not the only location where environmental justice advocates on Wednesday protested CalGEM’s failure to protect frontline communities from the dangerous heath and environmental impacts of leaking oil and gas wells.
In Bakersfield, community members stood outside the entrance to the Inland field office with banners that called out employees for skimping on critical public health and safety monitoring of oilfields and failing to conduct onsite inspection of thousands of wells over the past two years.
“The Governor and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot like to claim that they’re climate champions, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Cesar Aguirre, a Kern County organizer with Central California Environmental Justice Network. “Their proposed health and safety rule is yet again stalled in a failed agency that won’t even go into the field to monitor the state’s riskiest and oldest oil infrastructure in-person. It’s clear that they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are done waiting. CalGEM needs to do their job.”
“Now yet another scandal shows us that state oil regulators are still not doing their job to protect Californians,” stated Shosana Wechsler, coordinator with Sunflower Alliance. “An agency name change and new supervisor have not changed a thing. CalGEM needs new leadership from someone with a genuine commitment to environmental justice and robust regulation.”
“Pollution from oil and gas operations causes asthma and other breathing problems, may cause cognitive decline and cancer; it affects babies even before they are born,” said Marjaneh Moini, board member, Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We must phase out oil and gas infrastructure to truly protect public health, that is exactly what CalGEM scientific advisory panel has recommended. A 3200 foot buffer between Californians and industrial oil operations is the bare minimum to protect their health, their livelihoods and their families.”
“Our communities are tired of being neglected by our leaders and paying the public health and environmental price for it,” said Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Jasmine Vazin. “We’ve felt the consequences of their inaction as dangerous amounts of methane spew into the air near Bakersfield homes, schools, and a day care center. But these leaking wells are merely the tip of the iceberg that is California’s idle and orphan well problem. We stand beside the community members demanding Governor Newsom put their public safety first and foremost and address the toxic drilling activities that are going on in our backyards.”
They Governor’s office said in a statement that, “In the last few weeks, state oil and gas regulators have discovered idle oil wells leaking methane in Kern County. The state has taken urgent action to ensure these wells are properly remediated and operators are held accountable.” Yet the agency admitted last Friday that five previously repaired wells were leaking again and they discovered two new wells spewing methane.
“There are thousands of such idle or abandoned wells across the state – with as many as two-thirds leaking methane – putting frontline communities’ health at risk and potentially leaving taxpayers saddled with cleanup. Frontline communities are calling for the state to mandate 3,200 feet separating neighborhoods from new and existing oil infrastructure,” the groups concluded.
The protest took place as two groups, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance, revealed that State approvals for permits to fix or deepen existing oil wells skyrocketed in the second quarter by 124% over the same time last year.
“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,” according to the two groups. 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.”
She noted that Bakersfield residents over the past month 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."
Second quarter permit approvals pushed the overall number of oil drilling permits approved since Newsom came to office in January 2019 to 11,669, according to the analysis.
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%, the groups stated.
“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,” added 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,” stated Tucker.
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.”
But a whistleblower speaking to a print media outlet claimed 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,” he concluded.
California faces a massive threat from thousands of toxic oil and gas wells across the state that are no longer in use, known as idle/orphan wells. These wells threaten the health of frontline communities, harm the climate and hurt taxpayers and local governments who are saddled with large cleanup costs. Idle oil and gas wells can allow harmful fluids and dangerous gasses to migrate to the surface, causing water contamination, air pollution, and even deadly explosions. In many cases, idle oil wells in the state are located in communities that are already overburdened with pollution, further contributing to environmental injustice.
One study estimated that two-thirds of idle wells in California are leaking methane. Additionally there are not currently any California regulations that exist to address these leaks so operators are free to allow these leaks to continue in perpetuity. Frontline communities are calling for the state to mandate 3,200 feet separating neighborhoods from new and existing oil infrastructure.