A new bill (AB 1328) just passed in the California legislature and is awaiting Gov. Newsom’s signature. The bill requires California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, in consultation with the California Air Resources Board, to initiate an independent evaluation of the climate and health pollution impacts from idle, deserted and abandoned wells Just like active production sites, these inactive oil and gas wells can leak pollution, affecting communities through climate change and health impacts.
A dangerous mix of benzene and methane from inactive wells
There are around 30,000 idle and abandoned oil wells in California, with tens of thousands of people living within 100 feet or less of them. A recent report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health examined LA County’s 1,850 inactive oil wells and found that many old wells were improperly abandoned in the past, or left idle. Because of pollutants like benzene, oil and gas pollution released in communities — where surprisingly many wells are located — can cause physical health impacts, including headaches, nosebleeds and nausea. Benzene has also been linked to certain types of cancers and birth defects.
Another type of harmful emissions released by these inactive wells is methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Methane emissions from human activities are responsible for around one-quarter of the warming our planet is experiencing today, with one-quarter of that coming from oil and gas. While many idle and abandoned wells in California are being tested for harmful pollutants every year, the vast majority are not tested for methane, even under existing programs like AB 617, which includes local air quality monitoring.
How can we tell which wells will leak?
It is clear that something needs to be done to understand which wells will leak or are actively leaking, so that they can be remediated before they impact nearby residents and the climate. For example, in 2016 a pair of idle oil and gas wells were found leaking natural gas in the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, less than 100 feet from nearby residences. In addition, earlier this year, an old oil well in Marina Del Rey experienced a release during remediation work.
Whether it be from the ample examples of wells leaking in Los Angeles, the Central Valley or in other regions of the state, the science is clear that wells can and do emit pollution, and when they do, it can result in emissions that contribute to climate change and endanger public health.
By requiring a scientific evaluation of which idle and abandoned oil wells are likely to leak, AB 1328 will give California a powerful tool to reduce climate emissions, improve local air quality and direct efforts to wells with the largest human-health and environmental return.