Cesar Aguirre first became aware of a potential methane leak in Bakersfield about a month ago. He says that he heard the news from a resident who reported hearing a “hissing” sound coming from an oil well near their home.
And sure enough, after investigation, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, confirmed the report. They found dozens of oil wells in need of remediation, with 21 leaking explosive levels of methane gas in various neighborhoods in Bakersfield. This means that the invisible fumes could ignite and put residents at risk.
Other impacts from these gas leaks had already taken their toll. When Aguirre, who’s a local organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, went door-to-door to talk to Bakersfield residents, people told him about a range of symptoms.
Many residents told him that they’d been experiencing dizziness, fatigue and headaches – all evidence of exposure to the gas.
“Everyone had questions,” he says. “Everyone wanted to know who to call.”
As he visited homes located in neighborhoods close to the leaks, Aguirre says he offered some basic safety precautions: Keep your windows closed and your doors shut. If you smell gas, call 911. He says he was one of the first to do so, spurred by a concern that if he didn’t get the word out, no one else would in time to warn residents about significant health and safety risks.
“I heard this news and in my head I said, ‘nothing's going to happen for a long time,’” Aguirre says. “Nothing's going to happen fast enough to let these people know that they should protect themselves.”
Over 70% of California’s oil production comes from Kern County, where the city of Bakersfield is located. And many oil-producing wells are near residential communities. Aguirre says that in Bakersfield, there are oil wells “in people's backyards, in the parking lots of popular shopping malls, outside of the windows of restaurants.”
These particular leaks came from “idle wells,” a term used to describe a well that once produced oil or gas but has later been abandoned by its operator. Recent reports estimate that there are about 35,000 idle wells in California.
When improperly abandoned, idle wells can contaminate air and drinking water. CalGEM has plugged 1,400 of these kinds of wells since 1977, which the state reports has cost around $29.5 million.
In the past month, CalGEM has worked to plug the leaking wells in Bakersfield. As of June 17, CalGEM had repaired 29 wells and is evaluating next steps for 11 others that were previously found to be leaking various levels of methane.
Although Aguirre is encouraged by CalGEM’s recent response, he says that the situation could have been avoided if earlier action was taken. One company responsible for some of the idle wells had long delayed orders from CalGEM to plug and abandon them.
“It's not a wave of wells that we're barely discovering,” says Aguirre. “[CalGEM wasn’t] taking action about it until it became something that was a problem in the public eye.”
Citing the situation in Bakersfield, advocates rallied in Sacramento on June 14 and called on Governor Gavin Newsom to create a buffer of 3,200 feet between oil wells and communities. They also demanded that the state halt all new oil and gas permits.
“Some people even have homes built on top of abandoned oil and gas wells,” says Ilonka Zlatar, president of 350 Sacramento, which is a local chapter of a nationwide environmental group. “And they're very concerned about what this means for the safety of their families and their homes.”
Zlatar organized protests at the state Capitol to bring attention to the issue. She says that advocates want long-term solutions, which extend beyond Bakersfield.
“The overarching problem is that fossil fuel companies just can't be trusted,” Zlatar says. “They continue to just put profit over people and over our planet.”
Newsom has addressed abandoned wells in recent weeks. In early June, he proposed $200 million to plug abandoned oil wells and decommission facilities. He also proposed another $100 million for the creation of methane-detecting satellites that would track methane emissions globally, described in a statement as “critical for California regulators to hold polluters accountable.”
“As we’ve seen right here in California, these oil wells present the risk of leaking at any moment,” Newsom said during the announcement.
But Zlatar says she and other activists are demanding more than remedies for existing wells, including completely phasing out fossil fuel extraction in California.
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