Elected Officials Warn Leaking Oil and Gas Wells in California are a Disaster Waiting to Happen

Elected Officials to Protect California urge Governor Newsom end new permits for drilling to prevent toxic taxpayer burden as oil companies declare bankruptcy

Map of California’s Idle Oil Wells, Fractracker,

Sacramento, CA- In the midst of this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, the need to change our energy usage to 100 percent renewable has never been clearer. In California leaking oil and gas wells have been poisoning communities — putting the lives and livelihoods of thousands at risk. Adding insult to injury, those same communities are too often left with the cleanup and Californian taxpayers with the associated costs.

In the wake a series of bankruptcies of major oil and gas companies including California Resources Corporation, Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA) are alarmed not enough is being done to stop these environmental degradations which are dangerous health hazards. EOPCA warns that oil and gas wells that leak are disasters in the making, which will only get worse without real state intervention. The governor needs to take action.

A recent California Council on Science and Technology analysis found that currently 5,540 wells in California without a company maintaining them and additional 69,425 economically marginal and idle wells that could become orphaned in the future. The report found the total costs of plugging and abandoning all of the state’s oil and gas wells is more than $9 billion.

EOPCA urges Governor Newsom to keep his promise to put the health and safety of Californians first and phase out all oil and gas wells and completely transition to renewable energy sources by 2045.

“There are one million people residing within a five square mile radius of the Inglewood Oil Field, which sits atop the Newport Inglewood fault line. Disaster could strike at any time. Its infrastructure is nearly 100 years old. Within the past few years, there have been several leaks and spills. We have to protect our people, not the fossil fuel industry,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells former Culver City Mayor, and current Councilmember. “I’m proud to serve as Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect California, where more than 310 of us signed a letter asking the governor to take action to halt permitting, and phase out fossil fuel production once and for all.”

Momentum for government action to phase out fossil fuels is increasing. Last week, the Ventura County planning commission passed a ban for gas hookups in new buildings and a 2,500 foot setback for oil and gas wells near schools. To date, more than 115 local governments in California have passed more than 160 laws and policies to phase out fossil fuels.

More than 350,000 Califonians are exposed daily to degraded air quality and health harms solely because they live within 600 feet of an oil or gas well. Over 2 million Californians are endangered by the toxic contaminants oil and gas wells spew into the air because they live within 2,500 feet of an oil or gas well.

“In our letter to Governor Newsom we also asked him to start protecting people now with an instantaneous 2,500 foot setback, or safe zone, from oil and wells dangerously close to schools, homes, and businesses,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells, Councilmember of Culver City and Elected Officials to Protect California Co-Chair. “This recklesnness with people’s lives has to end.”

LA County’s Department of Regional Planning is in the process of updating their Title 22 Oil Well Ordinance for the first time in almost 40 years. On April 13, 2020, they published their initial draft and are accepting their first round of public comments on this draft until September 23. This rule oversees oil drilling in unincorporated parts of LA County (excluding the Inglewood Oil Field which is regulated by the Baldwin Hills Community Standard District).

Public comments will help determine what the outcome will be for the health and wellbeing of millions.

This poison from leaky wells is not evenly distributed to all Californians. Over 8,500 active wells are located within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, and hospitals, poisoning people while they are unguarded and exposed. Between 2011 and 2018, 76 percent of new oil wells permitted were placed in communities with above average poverty rates for California and 67 percent located in communities of color. If these wells leak the fumes can cause nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. By not acting the state of California is further endangering the sick, the young, the impoverished, and communities of color, those who are the most vulnerable to the dangers of our world.

“With refineries surrounding the area I represent in Solano County, I see pollution degrading the quality of life for many of our most marginalized residents. In the portion of Vallejo we have high rates of asthma, cancer, and other health issues related to pollution. Refineries leak,” said Monica Brown, Supervisor, Solano County, and signatory of the Elected Officials to Protect California letter to Newsom.

Even more devastating are the carcinogens, such as benzene, and other toxic pollutants that too often leak from these wells and contaminate the air, but it doesn’t stop there.

“The oil industry also pollutes the groundwater, making us sick.” said Felipe Perez, Fresno City Councilmember and Steering Committee Member of Elected Officials to Protect California. “In Fresno half of the water has been polluted by fossil fuel companies who sold their toxic waste to farmers as a pesticide. We need to stop drilling. Water is a human right.”

Leaking oil and gas wells also emit a substantial amount of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change and further threatening the Californian water supply. Across the country in 2018 abandoned oil and gas wells alone emitted a combined total of 281 kilotons of methane, which is equivalent to burning 16.2 million barrels of crude oil in terms of climate damage.

Climate change has already contributed to massive droughts and heat waves in the western United States. In California we know all too well how droughts spark devastating fires. While our front line firefighters extinguish them our precious water resources become more depleted. Inadequate action to transition away from fossil fuels and properly seal existing wells will exacerbate these issues and damage California’s public health and water security even further.

Not only do leaking oil and gas wells cause unspeakable damage to public health and the environment, but they are an economic disaster in the making. In California there are about 35,000 wells sitting idle with production suspended that are continuously leaking toxins into and poisoning their surrounding environment.

On July 15, California Resources Corporation (CRC), which has many idle wells across the state, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy to seek relief from $5 billion in debt. This adds them to the list of 23 oil and gas companies in North America that have declared bankruptcy this year alone. As the profitability of oil and gas declines, it is expected that many more wells will be abandoned and more and more oil and gas companies will declare bankruptcy.

With oil prices currently hovering around $40 per barrel companies can’t afford to pay off debts acquired when oil was at their peak. If their finances aren’t in order and they can’t properly plug wells, these corporations leave the state and its taxpayers to clean up the mess.

California law requires that fossil fuel companies post bonds to ensure that wells are properly plugged and remediated when nothing more can be taken from them, but these bonds are often massively inadequate. The bonds of California’s seven largest drilling companies, which control about 75 percent of existing wells, amount to approximately $230 for every well that needs to be decommissioned, plugged, and remediated. That’s where the story begins.

The actual cost in California to ensure that this process is done properly ranges from $40,000 to $152,000 depending on the location. A new law put into effect July 1 allows CalGEM to collect up to $30 million per company to ensure there are sufficient financial resources available for plugging orphaned wells if their owners fold. But after a company goes bankrupt the costs of a comprehensive cleanup we know will exceed that $30 million. That’s when the state and taxpayers will be left with billions of dollars to pay to safely decommission these wells, placing an even greater burden on those who are already suffering from the very existence of these wells.

EOPCA wants to know why California supports a dying industry that was already in turmoil even before the pandemic. Having started 2020 near $70 a barrel, oil plunged below $25 as storage tanks neared capacity and the price of U.S. oil futures even briefly sank below zero. In the past 12 months CRC’s share prices have plunged 92 percent and it is likely that other companies are on a similar downward trajectory. Oil has lost its place in the market. It’s an unreliable source of energy and provides no economic stability, whereas clean, renewable energy sources are financially consistent and are not toxic to public health.

“Even though the air quality and seismic risks are well known, the failing fossil fuel industry that is driving catastrophic climate change, continues to ask for a bailout with our public money,” said Meghan Sahli-Wells Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect California, former Culver City Mayor, and current council member. “No more public funding should go to this failing industry. It’s time to prioritize the health and wellbeing of all Californians and rid our state of these toxic wells.”

The suffering inflicted upon Californians by fossil fuel companies needs to end. In a world plagued by uncertainty and colliding crises, we need to act now to protect our citizens and our future.

The mission of EOPA: To create a safe, prosperous, and healthy planet, we empower leadership from elected officials and civic leaders to protect our environment, and fight the climate crisis. As current and former elected officials who care deeply about protecting our planet and people from the dangers of climate change, EOPA educates through value-based storytelling, trains lawmakers, and connects elected officials to inspire strong environmental policy. Lawmakers who are veterans and elected officials lead our mission.


July 22, 2020


Contact: Alexander Cornell du Houx, President of Elected Officials to Protect California Cell: 207.319.4511