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California oil regulator confirms methane leak at idle oil wells in Bakersfield

Nathan Solis, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — California regulators have confirmed a methane gas leak at a pair of idle oil wells near a residential neighborhood in Bakersfield, raising the concerns of local environmental groups who fear the problem might be more widespread.

It's unclear how long the leaks described as "pinhole-sized" went undetected, but state regulators said they were sealed by Friday evening.

Earlier this month, researcher Clark Williams-Derry from Washington state walked onto the Kern Bluff oil field in northeast Bakersfield and discovered an audible hiss coming from two oil wells. The wells sit approximately 400 feet from a home in a suburban housing development and were previously managed by Sunray Petroleum Inc.

Williams-Derry said the oil wells look like spouts jutting from the ground and are covered by blue barrels, but are exposed to the open air. He said there are many more blue barrels in the oil field like the one he found.

"I was not out looking for things that were leaking when I walked into the oil field," said Williams-Derry, who works with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and was visiting Bakersfield last week. "I wonder what this means for people in the community, because if someone can just wander by there's no telling what this means."

Methane is a colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas. High levels of methane can reduce the amount of oxygen breathed from the air and can result in vision problems, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, facial flushing and headache.

 

Across much of California, fossil fuel companies are leaving thousands of oil and gas wells unplugged and idle, potentially threatening the health of people living nearby and in many cases handing taxpayers the bill for the environmental cleanup.

From Kern County to Los Angeles, companies haven't set aside anywhere near enough money to ensure these drilling sites are cleaned up and made safe, according to a 2020 data analysis and investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Public Integrity.

Of particular concern are about 35,000 wells sitting idle, with production suspended, half of them for more than a decade. Though California recently toughened its regulations to ensure more cleanup funds are available, those measures don't go far enough, according to a recent state report and the Times/Public Integrity analysis.

Last Tuesday, an inspector from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District confirmed the methane leak in Bakersfield and reported it to the California Geologic Energy Management Division, the state's oil and gas regulator. CalGEM said the leaks were minor and not deemed an emergency by the air district and the Bakersfield Fire Department.

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