Some Bakersfield residents are worried about potential explosions after a state agency found six unused oil wells near homes were leaking methane gas in the past few days.
State and regional inspectors have found concentrations of methane in the air around some of the wells at levels considered potentially explosive and environmental activists in the region fear that other chemicals may also be leaking from the wells, which which could pose a threat to public health.
But Uduak-Joe Ntuk, head of the California Geologic Energy Management division of the California Department of Conservation, the agency that oversees the wells and confirmed they were leaking, said in a statement that the leaks were “minor in nature and not pose no immediate problem”. threat to public health or safety”.
Residents and environmentalists in the area first became concerned when they were alerted by Clark Williams-Derry, an energy analyst, that two wells were hissing a few hundred yards from homes. He was visiting the region on May 10 with a French documentary team working on a film about the cleanup of oil and gas infrastructure around the world.
“One of them was leaking, it was making an audible hiss,” Williams-Derry told The Associated Press. “And I was like ‘what’s going on? I thought these things were supposed to be basically sealed.
On May 17, an inspector with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District measured methane concentrations in the air surrounding leaky wells, district communications officer Jamie Holt said in a statement. at the Associated Press.
The agency did not confirm the methane concentrations found. But a letter sent to state oil and gas regulators by a coalition of environmental groups said the inspector had found methane levels in the air around one of the wells to be 20,000 parts per million. (ppm) and at least 50,000 ppm around the other well.
Those two wells have since been sealed, Ntuk said in a statement Friday, but as inspectors checked that the seals on those wells were stopping leaks, they found four other inactive wells that were leaking.
Three of the four wells had methane concentrations of 50,000 ppm in the air around them, according to a state report. The other well had a methane concentration of 6,000 ppm.
Methane is potentially explosive at atmospheric concentrations of 50,000 ppm, according to federal guidelines.
Riley Duren, international methane expert and researcher at the Arizona Institute for Resilient Environments and Societies and Research, Innovation and Impact, said methane concentrations of 50,000ppm can imply “an extreme and potentially dangerous event”.
CalGEM said in its report on the four additional leaks that it was notifying the owner/operator of the wells, Sunray Petroleum, to repair the leaks and that it had notified the Bakersfield Fire Department. But conservationists in the region said the response from regional and state authorities did not go far enough.
“The response … (shows) a complete disrespect for the safety of this community,” Nayamin Martinez, director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network and area resident, said in a statement.
CalGEM said there was no reason to alert the public to the leaks, but advocates in the region disagree. In the days after the leaks were discovered, Cesar Aguirre, senior community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, surveyed the neighborhood surrounding the wells to notify residents.
Aguirre said he warns residents of the potential for an explosion or fire in their community, but also other possible pollution, like acute levels of ozone or smog, that could form around leaky wells. . Methane itself is generally non-toxic to humans, but a 2021 United Nations report points out that ozone pollution is linked to methane emissions.
“Methane is a precursor to health, which means it never appears on its own,” Aguirre said. “So if there’s methane there are definitely other scary chemicals floating around with it.”
David JX González, lead author of a recent study on the distribution of abandoned wells in urban areas, echoed some of Aguirre’s concerns and said leaks are an “urgent public health problem.” He pointed out that there are thousands of other unused wells spread across the state.
“Researchers have found that methane emissions from abandoned wells, which are disproportionately located in the Black and Latinx neighborhoods, likely mean that other airborne toxicants are also being emitted, which can cause birth defects, neurological conditions, hearing loss and certain cancers,” he said. in a report.
Neighborhoods near leaky wells are between 20% and 70% Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 census.
The coalition of groups lobbying for the wells to be sealed hopes the discovery of the leaks will spur the state to take action to ensure other unused wells across the state don’t leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Leaking wells also represent climate damage as well as health problems.
“We … hope this will spur CalGEM to act quickly to address the tens of thousands of other inactive or nearly inactive wells across the state to prevent these types of accidents in the future,” they said. at the end of the letter.