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Idle oil wells in Northeast Bakersfield found to be leaking 'explosive levels of methane gas'

Posted: 5:52 PM, May 23, 2022
Updated: 2022-05-24 01:15:29-04
Sunray Petroleum Inc. Barrel

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Oil is part of the fabric of Kern County, but as the population grows, some people are living just feet away from oil wells. A study by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District found high levels of methane gas coming from two idle oil wells near a community in Northeast Bakersfield.

Over the weekend the state agency CalGEM sent inspectors to the area.

It started with two wells showing high levels of methane gas being leaked to nearby communities but when CalGEM and other agencies came to check it out and seal the leak, they also realized there were other wells experiencing the same thing.

According to the Sierra Club: "The two wells are located approximately 370 feet from homes. It is unclear how long the wells have been leaking. Records show that the wells have been idle since 1988 and 1982, but were not properly plugged after oil production stopped."

Sierra Club

Cesar Aguirre with the Central California Environmental Justice Network explains the inspectors used gas readers and found one well was hitting the reading limit of 50,000 parts per million meaning 50,000 of every 1 million air molecules is methane. That is also the exposure level at which methane becomes potentially explosive.

"We found four more wells to the north of these. All of them had a leak at explosive levels of methane gas," said Aguirre.

A handful of local residents expressed not being too concerned over the leak, but one mentioned they had talked about it with neighbors.

"Some guy said he smelled like acid I guess. I just hope it doesn’t come to our house for one," said resident Angel Valenzuela.

Valenzuela says he has been living here for a year and has only recently heard about this.

Aguirre also noticed one of the barrels that cover the wells was recently tipped over.

Sunray Petroleum Inc. Barrel
The owner of the wells is Sunray Petroleum Inc., which according to an online database has over 100 wells in Kern County.

"This means somebody potentially could have been playing with what could have been a bomb and that is also why I think this is a public danger. These should be fenced off, as per CalGEM rules. These are critical wells and they should be fenced off but they are not, so violations on top of violations and that is part of the reason why we are here."

The owner of the wells is Sunray Petroleum Inc., which according to an online database has over 100 wells in Kern County.

CalGEM says the company has failed to pay idle well fees and submit an idle well testing compliance work plan as well as numerous oilfield-related violations. On May 2nd, CalGEM requested the company plug abandoned wells, and restore well sites for 28 idle wells but the company appealed the order on May 13th.

23ABC reached out to the company’s online portal and called the number on their barrels as well as headquarters but did not get an answer.

CalGEM was also not available for an interview but did put out a statement in regard to the first two wells reading in part: “We have been coordinating with the operator and local first responders to determine the wells do not pose an immediate threat to public health or safety. While the pinhole-sized leaks were determined to be minor in nature, CalGEM contractors were able to seal both wells.”

Upon receiving notification of potentially high levels of methane emissions leaking from two long term idle wells in Kern Bluff Lease, CalGEM took immediate action to deploy field engineers to inspect the site and file a notification with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. After inspecting the site and consulting with Bakersfield Fire Department and the SJVAPCD, CalGEM can confirm that the wells were leaking methane gas, but the emissions do not rise to an emergency situation. To address the leak, CalGEM secured a contractor to seal and repair both wells.

According to EGas Depot methane fact sheet, the gas is considered an asphyxiant at extremely high concentrations and can displace oxygen, especially in confined spaces. Known symptoms include headache, dizziness, loss of coordination, and nausea.

In low concentrations, Methane gas is not harmful, but extreme high levels of CH4 decrease the amount of oxygen in the air which can lead to suffocation. Some of the symptoms that may arise due to acute exposure include headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, rapid breathing, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness. There are no known long-term health effects caused by Methane and it cannot cause skin irritation unless you come into contact with the liquefied gas. Contact with liquefied methane gas will cause frostbite. You should seek medical attention if overexposure is suspected or if illness occurs.

Meanwhile, Aguirre explains CalGEM is not required to communicate these results with nearby neighborhoods, which is why he passed out flyers with information. And although he is happy two of the wells were sealed he wishes the state did more.

"For CalGEM methane is not a public health problem. For them, they described it as a pin-sized leak. I think the size of the leak does not determine the severity of the problem. A bullet hole is the size of a pinhole and I think that it can cause a lot of damage. And obviously, four wells that are still leaking at explosive levels, if that is a minor issue to them then I think that is a big indicator of the disrespect they have for our lives."

Aguirre also points out that the regulators that came out during the weekend only searched for methane gas but points out that wells like these often leak other types of gasses that should also be looked into.