California’s multibillion-dollar problem: The toxic legacy of old oil wells

California’s multibillion-dollar problem: The toxic legacy of old oil wells

Thousands of wells across the state, including near residential areas, have been left inactive for years and are in need of cleanup.

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 handing taxpayers a multibillion-dollar 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 for future generations, according to a months-long 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. California’s oil industry is in decline, which increases the chances that companies will go out of business. That in turn could leave the state with the costs for cleaning up their drilling sites, which if left unremediated can contaminate water supplies and waft fumes into people’s homes.

Industry representatives say they are doing their part to pay for cleanup in California, but their bonds are woefully inadequate to meet the expected costs. The Times/Public Integrity investigation found that bonds posted to the state by California’s seven largest drillers, which account for more than 75% of oil and gas wells, amount to about $230 on average for every well they must decommission. Other bonds held by federal and local regulators don’t significantly raise those amounts.

By contrast, the average per-well cost for capping wells and dismantling associated surface infrastructure in California is between $40,000 and $152,000, depending on whether a well is in a rural or urban area, according to a study released in January by the California Council on Science and Technology.

The result is a yawning gap between what the industry has provided and what ultimately will be needed. Companies have given the state only $110 million to clean up the state’s onshore oil and gas wells, the council found. By contrast, it could cost roughly $6 billion for that cleanup, according to a Times/Public Integrity analysis of state data provided to the science and technology council.

Decommissioning offshore oil wells and platforms, which is not included in those figures, will cost several billion dollars. 

Until such wells are plugged, they can release toxic emissions and flammable gases from both their casings and the pipes that connect to them. Elvia Garcia knows that all too well.

In 2014, flames shot out of wall sockets in Garcia’s home. Her pregnant daughter suffered from sudden blackouts. Government inspectors drilled test holes in lawns and found explosive levels of gas leaking from a pipe servicing wells at the end of the block.

They gave residents one hour to evacuate. It was nine months before Garcia’s family was allowed to return.

“We smelled strong odors of something decaying, and that smell was coming from the outlets,” she said in Spanish. “We thought there was something in between the walls that had died.”

More than 350,000 Californians live within 600 feet of unplugged wells, a Times/Public Integrity analysis of census data found. That’s the distance at which people are exposed to degraded air quality, according to a 2019 report from the office overseeing oil and gas in Los Angeles.

By Mark Olalde, The Center for Public Integrity