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Systematic Racism in Kern County Oil and Gas Permitting Ordinance

Kern County, California has approved at least 18,356 illegal permits to drill new and rework existing oil and gas wells since 2015 (data updated May 18, 2020). In a monumental decision in February of 2020, a California court ruled that a Kern County oil and gas ordinance paid for and drafted by the oil industry violated the state’s foundational environmental law. Kern County has failed to consider the environmental harms resulting from oil and gas drilling, such as water supply and air quality problems, farmland degradation, and increased noise, and communities have had enough.

Starting in 2015, Kern County used a local ordinance to fast-track the drilling of up to 72,000 new oil and gas wells over the next 25 years. The court’s recent decision allows the existing 18,356 permits to remain valid, but blocked the county from issuing any more permits after the end of April, 2020. This is an important victory for Kern County communities, but the existing permits present a public health threat that regulators have never adequately addressed.

To better understand the impacts of these illegal permits, and identify the communities most impacted, FracTracker Alliance has conducted an environmental justice spatial analysis based on the location of the permits. A map of the permits is found below in Figure 1. shows that there are 18,356 “Drilling” and “Rework” permits issued in Kern County since 2015, as well as the 1,304 permits located within 2,500’ of a sensitive receptor, including hospitals, schools, daycares, and homes.

 

Figure 1. Map of California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), approved drilling and rework permits, 2015-2019.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Ordinance

The ordinance, written by oil industry consultants, sidestepped state requirements for environmental reviews or public notices, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). It was used as a blanket environmental impact report (EIR), so that the threats of specific projects need not be considered.

To pass the ordinance, the county used a flawed study to hide the immense harm caused by oil and gas drilling and extraction. The appellate court that ruled against the ordinance stated it was passed “despite its significant, adverse environmental impacts.” As a result, the county allowed wells to be constructed next to people’s homes, schools, daycares, and healthcare facilities.

Permitting Summary

FracTracker aggregated, cleaned, and compiled California Geologic Energy Management Division’s (CalGEM) datasets of well permits. A breakdown of the statewide counts of permit types is shown below in Table 1. The table shows that in 2019, permits to drill new oil and gas wells made up about 34% of total permits. Over the course of the last five years, statewide permits have been distributed pretty equally between drilling wells, reworking wells to increase production (including re-drilling activities like deepening and sidetracking wells), and plugging and abandoning wells.

 

Breakdown of permit types issued by California Geologic Energy Management Division

Table 1. Breakdown of permit types issued by California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), 2015-2019.

 

The illegal Kern County ordinance took effect in 2015. Note the permit count increase from 2014 to 2015 in the graph in Figure 2 below. The data shows that Kern County permitting counts increased in 2015 with the passage of the illegal ordinance. In 2016, a new statewide rule (State Bill 4) took effect regulating hydraulic fracturing. Since most oil and gas drilling in California was using hydraulic fracturing, permit numbers statewide, including in Kern, fell drastically. Since 2016, permitting rates have been climbing back up to pre-2016 levels. As of May 18, 2020, Kern County has already approved 1,310 new drilling permits, putting Kern County on track to meet or exceed 2015 permit numbers.

 

Time Series of drilling permits issued by Kern County, California, 2014 to present

Figure 2. Time Series of drilling permits issued by Kern County, California, 2014 to present.

 

 

  • 2015

    New Kern ordinance to fast-track permits. Kern permits increase disproportionately.

  • 2016

    New SB4 statewide fracking permit requirements. Kern permits decrease as a result.

    2016

  • 2017 - 2020

    Proportion of Kern permits begin to increase once again

  • 2020

    California court ruled that a Kern County oil and gas ordinance paid for and drafted by the oil industry violated the state’s foundational environmental law. State permitting continues under CalGEM.

    2020

 

Kern County is the most heavily drilled county in the United States, and from 2015 to 2019 well permits were issued in Kern at elevated numbers as compared to the rest of the state. From the implementation of the ordinance (2014 to 2015), the proportion of drilling permits issued by Kern County increased from 82% to 94% of the state total. In Figure 3 below, the time series shows that Kern County makes up the majority of permits issued to drill new wells in California, and the proportion of wells drilled in Kern County has been higher from 2015 to 2019 than it had been prior. Not only did the ordinance allow permits to be drilled without any consideration for the community and public health impacts of Frontline Communities, but the actual numbers and proportions of wells drilled in Kern County increased as well. We have mapped these permits in Figure 3 below to show exactly where they are located.

 

Time series of permits issued to drill new wells in California from 1998 to 2019

Figure 3. Time series of permits issued to drill new wells in California from 1998 to 2019. The contribution of individual counties is shown with different colors, the area under the trend line representing the cumulative total.

 

Environmental Justice Mapping

The locations of well permits were mapped using GIS software and overlaid with indicators of social and environmental justice. The layers of Environmental Justice (EJ) mapping data were derived from CalEnviroScreen 3.0 census tract data, assigned to the block level, and 2015 American Community Survey demographical data, also summarized at the census block data.

Demographics

One of the major failings of the Kern County ordinance was the lack of risk communication with Frontline Communities. Not only were communities not informed of proposed drilling projects, all communications from Kern County and CalGem have been posted solely in English. Any attempts at communication of impacts and notices have excluded non-English speakers. Providing notices and information in non-English languages, at the very least in Spanish, needs to be a top priority for any regulatory body in California. The current permitting policy leverages systematic racism to preclude communities from participating in the decision-making processes that directly affect their families’ health.

As shown below in map in Figure 4, the majority of Kern County ranks high in “linguistic isolation” according to CalEnviroScreen 3.0. Our analysis shows that 11,244 permits were issued in block groups that CalEnviroscreen 3.0 has ranked in the top 60th percentile for linguistic isolation. A total 16,143 permits were issued in block groups that are 40% or more Hispanic, and that number increases to 18,000 (98.1%) permits if you include the permits issued in the Midway-Sunset Field, located on the border of one of Kern’s largest, and predominantly “Hispanic,” census block groups.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 4. Map of Oil and Gas Permits with Kern County “Hispanic” Demographics and Language Disparities. The shades of yellow to red census blocks represent the 60th percentile and above linguistic isolation. Hatched census tracts are census blocks with demographical profiles over 40% Hispanic.

 

Within Kern County, these permits were approved mostly in low income areas, and areas with pre-existing environmental degradation. In the map in Figure 5, below, permit locations were overlaid with CalEnviroScreen 3.0 rankings for existing environmental degradation and median income data from the American Community Survey (2015) to visually show the disparity.

Our analysis shows that 17,978 0f the 18,356 total drilling and reworking permits were issued in census block groups where the median income was at least 20% lower than that of Kern County (Kern median income = $51,579). Additionally, these areas are more impacted by existing sources of pollution. In fact, 18,298 (99.7%) permits were issued in census blocks designated as the above the 60th percentile of those suffering from existing pollution burden by CalEnviroScreen 3.0.

 

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 5. Map of oil and gas permits with Kern County environmental justice areas. Shown in shades of blue are the block groups with median incomes less than 80% of that of the Kern County ($51,579). The hatched areas are above the 60th percentile for CalEnviroScreen pollution burden.

 

Conclusion

Our results find that from 2015-2019, very few well permits were issued in census blocks that are predominantly white, with median incomes above the median, and low rankings of linguistic isolation. The policies enacted by Kern County to fast track permits were instituted in predominantly poor, linguistically isolated, Hispanic communities already suffering from existing environmental degradation. Through systematic racism, these areas have become Kern County’s “sacrifice zones.” Moving forward, we are pressuring Kern County to adopt a permitting approach that considers the health of Frontline Communities.

Unfortunately, since the court’s decision, well permitting in Kern County has not only continued, but actually accelerated. While the appellate court ordered permitting to stop for one month, the gap was quickly filled. Between March 28 and May 18, 2020; CalGEM approved 733 permits to drill new wells and rework existing wells in Kern County. In addition, CalGEM approved 38 new fracking permits in 2020 since March 28th, all in Kern County (regulated separately under State Bill 4), increasing the environmental burden on Kern communities further. Like Kern County, CalGEM’s permitting process also deserves scrutiny, as state permitting requirements are lax.

These irresponsible policies have had a direct impact on the health of Central Valley communities. Environmental monitoring has shown time and again that emissions from oil and gas wells include a cocktail of air toxics and carcinogens, and that living near oil and gas activity has been shown to be associated with numerous health impacts such as low birth weight, cancer, skin problems, asthma, and depression, The exclusion of Spanish-speaking residents from notifications and information on decisions that affect their health is an even further condemnation of the systematic and outright racism of Kern County’s permitting approach.

There is more work to be done, but the elimination of Kern County’s fast-tracking ordinance is a major win for public health and democracy.

FracTracker Alliance would like to congratulate the organizations responsible for this legislative victory and thank them for all their hard work. They include Committee for a Better Arvin, Committee for a Better Shafter, and Greenfield Walking Group, represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, together with the Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club, who was represented by Earthjustice.

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

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Map of New 2020 Fracking Permits in California

California, Back in Frack

California is once again a fracked state. The moratorium on well stimulations (hydraulic fracturing and acidizing) that lasted since June 26, 2019 has now come to an end. As of April 3rd, 2020, California’s oil and gas regulatory body, California Geological Energy Management Division (CalGEM), approved 24 new permits to frack new wells. The wells were permitted to the operator Aera Energy. Well types to be fracked include 22 oil and gas production wells and 2 water flood wells; 18 of which are in the South Belridge Field and 6 North Belridge Field. Locations of the wells are shown in the map in Figure 1, and are mapped with the rest of 2020’s approved well drilling and rework permits in Consumer Watchdog’s updated release on NewsomWellWatch.org. Please read our press release with Consumer Watchdog here!

Figure 1. Map of New Fracking Permits in California

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Health Risks

Fortunately, these 24 approved well stimulation permits are not located in close proximity to communities that would be directly impacted by the negative contributions to air quality and potential groundwater quality degradation that result from drilling and stimulating oil and gas wells. Regardless of where oil and gas wells and stimulations are permitted in relation to Frontline Communities, these wells will still degrade the regional air quality of the San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Valley has the worst air quality in the country. According to the U.S. EPA, oil and gas production is a main contributor of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and NOX in the Valley. In addition to VOC’s being carcinogens, these pollutants are precursors to the ozone and smog that cause health impacts such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular disease, and negative birth outcomes.

Geology and Spills

Additionally, the dolomite formations where these 24 stimulations were permitted have also experienced the same type of oil seeps and spills (known as surface expressions) as the Cymric Field just to the south. Readers may remember the operator Chevron spilling 1.3 million gallons of oil and wastewater in an uncontrollable seep resulting from high pressure injection wells.

Whereas Governor Newsom may have put a halt to unpermitted high-pressure injections, regulators have just approved permits for 24 new fracking operations, a.k.a well stimulations. The irony here is that risks inherent in the fracking process in California include the same risks associated with high pressure steam injection operations. Both techniques elevate the downhole pressure of a well to the point that the formation “source” rock is fractured. These techniques increase the likelihood of downhole communication with other surrounding wells, both active and plugged. Downhole communication events between wells, in this case known as “frack hits” are a major cause of well casing failures and blowouts, which in turn are the primary cause of surface expressions. Simply put, high pressure injections in over-developed oil fields result in spills, and in this case, these 24 permitted stimulations are within 1,500’ of over 7,000 existing wells, a distance specifically identified by CalGEM as a high-risk zone for downhole communication between wells.

Regulation

So how did these wells get approved? Here’s the story, as told by CalGEM:

​​​​In November, CalGEM requested a third-party scientific review of pending well stimulation permit applications to ensure the state’s technical standards for public health, safety and environmental protection are met prior to approval of each permit. To ensure the proposed permits comply with California law, including the state’s technical standards to protect public health, safety, and environmental protection, the Department of Conservation asked experts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to assess CalGEM’s permit review process. LLNL also evaluated the completeness of operators’ application materials and CalGEM’s engineering and geologic analyses.

The independent scientific review is one of Governor Newsom’s initiatives to ensure oil and gas regulations protect public health, safety, and environmental protection. This review, which assesses the completeness of each proposed hydraulic fracturing permit, is taking place as an interim measure while a broader audit is completed of CalGEM’s permitting process for well stimulation. That audit is being completed by the Department of Finance Office of Audits and Evaluation (OSAE) and will be completed and shared publicly later this year. LLNL experts are continuing evaluation on a permit-by-permit basis and conducting a rigorous technical review to verify geological claims made by well operators in the application process. Permit by permit review will continue until the Department of Finance Audit is complete later this year.

LLNL’s scientific review of the permit applications and process found that the permitting process met statutory and regulatory requirements. LLNL found, however, that CalGEM could improve its evaluation of the technical models used in the permit approval process. As a result, CalGEM now requires all operators to provide an Axial Dimensional Stimulation Area (ADSA) Narrative Report for each oilfield and fracture interval which must be validated by LLNL and conform to the new CalGEM permitting process. This will improve CalGEM’s ability to independently validate applicants’ fracture modeling.

While this sounds like a methodological approach to the permitting process, it is still flawed in several ways. First and foremost, there is still no process for community input, let alone community decision-making. Community stakeholders are not engaged at in point in this process. Furthermore the contribution of oil and gas extraction operations to the degradation of environmental quality is already well established. In the case of these 24 fracking permits, they will contribute to the further degradation of regional air quality and continue the legacy of groundwater contamination within the sacrifice zone surrounding the Belridge fields.

Fracking in the Age of Pandemics

While we are critical of Governor Newsom’s climate-changing oil extraction policies, FracTracker would like to recognize the leadership Governor Newsom has shown instituting responsible policies to keep Californians as safe as possible and protected from the threat of COVID-19. While there can still be more done to provide relief for the most financially vulnerable, such as instituting a rent moratorium for those that do not own their own homes, California leads as an example for the public health interventions that need to be instituted nation-wide. The Governors inclusion of undocumented citizens in the state’s economic stimulus program is a first step, and FracTracker Alliance fully supports increasing the amount to at least match the $1,200 provided to the rest of Californians.

Conclusion

Regardless, the threat of COVID-19 cannot be addressed in a vacuum. Threats of infection are magnified for Frontline Communities. Living near oil and gas operations exposes communities to a cocktail of volatile organic compounds that suppress the immune system, increasing the risk of contracting viral lung infections. Frontline Communities are therefore particularly vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19. California and Governor Newsom need to consider the public health implications of permitting new fracking and new oil and gas wells, particularly those permits within 2,500’ of hospitals, schools, and other sensitive sites, above all during an existing pandemic.

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

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California well pad

California Setback Analyses Summary

FracTracker Alliance has conducted numerous spatial analyses concerning the proximity of oil and gas extraction infrastructure to sensitive receptors, including healthcare centers, locations where children congregate, locations where the elderly congregate, as well sensitive habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife. In this article, we summarize the results of a handful of these analyses that are most relevant to the impact a 2,500’ minimum setback would have on oil and gas extraction in California, discussed here in our recent article. We are providing these summaries as useful references for creating materials and crafting documents in support of establishing policies to protect public health and Frontline Communities, such as setbacks regulations. For further readings on the health threats oil and gas poses for Frontline Communities see PSE Healthy Energy’s literature review of the negative impacts of oil and gas extraction (2009-2015)1, FracTracker Alliance’s literature review of negative health impacts (2016-2019)2, and Stand-LA’s review of literature showing health impacts at multiple distances with reference to 2,500’.3

California Population Counts

In the 2018 The Sky’s Limit report by Oil Change International (OCI),4 FracTracker’s analysis showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, hospitals, and playgrounds. At the time, it was estimated that over 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

An assessment of the number of California citizens living proximal to active oil and gas production wells was also conducted for the CCST State Bill 4 Report on Well Stimulation in 2016.5 The analysis calculated the number of California residents living within 2,500’ of an active (producing) oil and gas well, and based estimates of demographic percentages on 2015 ACS data at the census block level. The report found that:

  • 859,699 individuals in California live within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well
  • Of this, a total of 385,067 are “Non-white” (45%)
  • Of this, a total of 341,231 are “Hispanic” (40%) *[as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau]

Population counts within the setbacks were calculated for smaller census designated areas including counties and census tracts. The results of the calculations are presented in Table 1 and the analysis is shown in the maps in Figure 1 and Figure 2 below.

Data for the City of Los Angeles was also aggregated. Results showed:

  • 215,624 individuals in the City of Los Angeles live within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well
  • Of this, a total of 114,593 are “Non-white” (53%)
  • Of this, a total of 119,563 are “Hispanic” (55%) *[as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau]

Table 1. Population Counts by County. The table presents the counts of individuals living within 2,500’ of an active oil and gas well, aggregated by county. The top 12 counties with the highest population counts are shown. “Impacted Population” is the count of individuals estimated to live within 2,500’ of an oil and gas well. The “% Non-white” and “% Hispanic” columns report the estimated percentage of the impacted population of said demographic.

County Total Pop. Impacted Pop. Impacted % Non-white Impacted % Hispanic
Los Angeles 9,818,605 541,818 0.54 0.46
Orange 3,010,232 202,450 0.25 0.19
Kern 839,631 71,506 0.34 0.43
Santa Barbara 423,895 8,821 0.44 0.71
Ventura 823,318 8,555 0.37 0.59
San Bernardino 2,035,210 6,900 0.42 0.59
Riverside 2,189,641 5,835 0.46 0.33
Fresno 930,450 2,477 0.34 0.50
San Joaquin 685,306 2,451 0.55 0.42
Solano 413,344 2,430 0.15 0.15
Colusa 21,419 1,920 0.39 0.70
Contra Costa 1,049,025 1,174 0.35 0.30

 

California oil and gas well setback analysis

Figure 1. Map of impacted census tracts for a 2,500’ setback in California. The map shows areas of California that would be impacted by a 2,500’ setback from active oil and gas wells in California.

 

 

Los Angeles 2500ft Setback Analysis

Figure 2. Map of impacted census tracts for a 2,500’ setback in Los Angeles. The map shows areas of California that would be impacted by a 2,500’ setback from active oil and gas wells in Los Angeles.

 

From the analysis we find that the majority of California citizens living near active production wells are located in Los Angeles County. This amounts to 61% of the total count of individuals within 2,500’ in the full state. Additionally, the well sample population is limited to only wells that are reported with an “active” status. Including wells identified as idle or support wells such as Class II injection or EOR wells would increase both the total numbers and the demographical percentages because of the high population density in Los Angeles.

 

Well Counts – Updated Data

Using California Geologic Energy Management Division (CALGEM) data published March 1, 2020, we find that there are 105,808 wells reported as Active/Idle/New in California. There are 16,690 are located within 2,500′ of a sensitive receptor (15.77%). Of the 74,775 active wells in the state, 9,835 fall within the 2,500’ setback distance.6

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if they required reworks to ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather they are just avoiding the costs of plugging.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone (235 in Kern County).

In Los Angeles, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District of activities at well sites, including permit approvals for stimulations and reworks. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 reports were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling.

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of SB4. From 1/1/2016 to 4/1/19 there were 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback.

Production

Also part of the OCI The Sky’s Limit report,4 we approximated the amount of oil produced from wells within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors. Using the API numbers of wells identified as being within the buffer area, we pulled production data for each well from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) database. The results are based on 2016 production data, the latest complete data available at the time of the analysis. The data indicated that 12% of statewide production came from wells within the buffer zone in 2016. Looking at the production data for a full 6 year period (2010 – 2016), production from wells within the buffer zone was 10% on average statewide. Limiting the analysis to only Kern County, the result was actually smaller. About 5% of countywide production in 2016 (6.1 million barrels) was found to come from wells in the buffer zone.

Low Income Communities

FracTracker conducted an analysis in Kern County for the California Environmental Justice Alliance’s 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment.7 We assessed the proportions of wells near sensitive receptors that are located in low-income communities (at or below 80% of the Kern County Average Median Income). We found that 5,229 active/idle/new oil and gas wells were within 2,500’ from sensitive receptors in low-income communities, including 3,700 active, 1,346 idle, and 183 newly permitted “new” oil and gas wells. The maps in Figures 3 and 4 below show these areas of Kern County and specifically Bakersfield, California.

FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County showed the following:

  • There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
  • Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
  • Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%), versus 13.1% for the rest of the state.

Kern County AB345 Wells and Medium Income

Figure 3. Map of Kern County census tracts with wells impacted by a 2,500’ setback, with median income brackets.

 

Bakersfield Kern County California AB345 Wells and Median Income

Figure 4. Map of Kern County census tracts with wells impacted by a 2,500’ setback, with median income brackets.

Schools and Environmental Justice

FracTracker conducted an environmental justice analysis to investigate student demographics in schools near oil and gas drilling in California.8 The school enrollment data is from 2013 and the oil and gas wells data is from June 2014. For the analysis we used multiple distances, including 0.5 miles (about 2,500’). Based on the statistical comparisons in the report, we made the following conclusions:

  • Students attending school near at least one active oil and gas well are 10.5% more likely to be Hispanic.
  • Students attending school near at least one active oil and gas well are 6.7% more likely to be a minority.
  • There are 61,612 students who attend school within 1 mile of a stimulated oil or gas well, and 12,362 students who attend school within 0.5 miles of a stimulated oil or gas well.
  • School districts with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to house wells that have been hydraulically fractured.
  • Schools campuses with greater Hispanic and non-white student enrollment are more likely to be closer to more oil and gas wells and wells that have been hydraulically fractured.
  • Students attending school within 1 mile of oil and gas wells are predominantly non-white (79.6%), and 60.3% are Hispanic.
  • The top 11 school districts with the highest well counts are located the San Joaquin Valley with 10 districts in Kern County and the other just north of Kern in Fresno County.
  • The two districts with the highest well counts are in Kern County: Taft Union High School District, host to 33,155 oil and gas wells; and Kern Union High School District, host to 19,800 oil and gas wells.
  • Of the schools with the most wells within a 1 mile radius, 8/10 are located in Los Angeles County.
  • There are 485 active/new oil and gas wells within 1 mile of a school and 177 active/new oil and gas wells within 0.5 miles of a school. This does not include idle wells.
  • There are 352,784 students who attend school within 1 mile of an oil or gas well, and 121,903 student who attend school within 0.5 miles of an oil or gas well. This does not include idle wells

Permits

In collaboration with Consumer Watchdog,9 we counted permit applications that were approved in 2018 during Governor Brown’s administration, as well as in 2019 and 2020 under Governor Newsom. The analysis included permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. Almost 10% of permits issued during the first two months of 2020 have been issued within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors including homes, hospitals, schools, daycares, and nursing facilities. This is slightly lower than the average for all approved permits in 2019 (12.2%). In 2018, Governor Brown approved 4,369 permits, of which 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback.

Conclusion

FracTracker Alliance’s body of work in California provides a summary of the population demographics of communities most impacted by oil and gas extraction. It is clear that communities of color in Los Angeles and Kern County make up the majority of Frontline Communities. New oil and gas wells are not permitted in equitable locations and setbacks from currently active oil and gas extraction sites are an environmental justice necessity.  Putting a ban on new permits and shutting down existing wells located within 2,500’ of sensitive receptors such as schools, hospitals, and homes would have a very small impact on overall production of oil in California. It is clear that the public health and environmental equity benefits of a 2,500’ setback far outweigh any and all drawbacks. We hope that the resources summarized in this article provide a useful source of condensed information for those that feel similarly.

References

  1. Hays J, Shonkoff SBC. 2016. Toward an Understanding of the Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development: A Categorical Assessment of the Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature, 2009-2015. PLOS ONE 11(4): e0154164. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154164Ferrar, K.
  2. Ferrar,K., Jackson, E. 2019. Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania. FracTracker Alliance, Delaware Riverkeeper. https://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/sites/default/files/FracTrackerAlliance_DRKHealthReview_Final_4.25.19.pdf.
  3. Wong, Nicole. 2017. Existing scientific literature on setback distances from oil and gas development sites. Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling Los Angeles. https://www.stand.la/uploads/5/3/9/0/53904099/2500_literature_review_report-final_jul13.pdf.
  4. Trout, K. 2018. The Sky’s Limit. Oil Change International. http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2018/05/Skys_Limit_California_Oil_Production_R2.pdf.
  5. Shonkoff et al. 2016. Potential Impacts of Well Stimulation on Human Health in California; Well Stimulation in California Chapter Six. California Council on Science and Technology. https://www.ccst.us/wp-content/uploads/160708-sb4-vol-II-6-1.pdf.
  6. Ferrar, Kyle. 2020. California Setback Analyses Summary. FracTracker Alliance. FracTracker.org. https://www.fractracker.org/2020/04/california-setback-analysis-summary/
  7. California Environmental Justice Alliance. 2018. Environmental Justice Agency Assessment. https://caleja.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CEJA-Agency-Assessment-FULL-FINAL-Web.pdf.
  8. Ferrar, Kyle. 2014. Hydraulic Fracturing Stimulations and Oil Drilling Near California Schools and within School Districts Disproportionately Burdens Hispanic and Non-White Students. FracTracker Alliance. https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Fractracker_SchoolEnrollmentReport_11.17.14.pdf.
  9. Ferrar, K. 2019. Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration. FracTracker Alliance. https://www.fractracker.org/2019/07/permitting-more-oil-gas-newsom/.

Feature photo of a well pad in California in April 2018, by Brook Lenker, FracTracker Alliance.

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National Energy and Petrochemical Map

FracTracker Alliance has released a new national map, filled with energy and petrochemical data. Explore the map, continue reading to learn more, and see how your state measures up!

The items on the map (followed by facility count in parenthesis) include:

         For oil and gas wells, view FracTracker’s state maps. 

This map is by no means exhaustive, but is exhausting. It takes a lot of infrastructure to meet the energy demands from industries, transportation, residents, and businesses – and the vast majority of these facilities are powered by fossil fuels. What can we learn about the state of our national energy ecosystem from visualizing this infrastructure? And with increasing urgency to decarbonize within the next one to three decades, how close are we to completely reengineering the way we make energy?

Key Takeaways

  • Natural gas accounts for 44% of electricity generation in the United States – more than any other source. Despite that, the cost per megawatt hour of electricity for renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of natural gas power plants.
  • The state generating the largest amount of solar energy is California, while wind energy is Texas. The state with the greatest relative solar energy is not technically a state – it’s D.C., where 18% of electricity generation is from solar, closely followed by Nevada at 17%. Iowa leads the country in relative wind energy production, at 45%.
  • The state generating the most amount of energy from both natural gas and coal is Texas. Relatively, West Virginia has the greatest reliance on coal for electricity (85%), and Rhode Island has the greatest percentage of natural gas (92%).
  • With 28% of total U.S. energy consumption for transportation, many of the refineries, crude oil and petroleum product pipelines, and terminals on this map are dedicated towards gasoline, diesel, and other fuel production.
  • Petrochemical production, which is expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030, takes the form of chemical plants, ethylene crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines on this map, largely concentrated in the Gulf Coast.

Electricity generation

The “power plant” legend item on this map contains facilities with an electric generating capacity of at least one megawatt, and includes independent power producers, electric utilities, commercial plants, and industrial plants. What does this data reveal?

National Map of Power plants

Power plants by energy source. Data from EIA.

In terms of the raw number of power plants – solar plants tops the list, with 2,916 facilities, followed by natural gas at 1,747.

In terms of megawatts of electricity generated, the picture is much different – with natural gas supplying the highest percentage of electricity (44%), much more than the second place source, which is coal at 21%, and far more than solar, which generates only 3% (Figure 1).

National Energy Sources Pie Chart

Figure 1. Electricity generation by source in the United States, 2019. Data from EIA.

This difference speaks to the decentralized nature of the solar industry, with more facilities producing less energy. At a glance, this may seem less efficient and more costly than the natural gas alternative, which has fewer plants producing more energy. But in reality, each of these natural gas plants depend on thousands of fracked wells – and they’re anything but efficient.Fracking's astronomical decline rates - after one year, a well may be producing less than one-fifth of the oil and gas it produced its first year. To keep up with production, operators must pump exponentially more water, chemicals, and sand, or just drill a new well.

The cost per megawatt hour of electricity for a renewable energy power plants is now cheaper than that of fracked gas power plants. A report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, found “even as clean energy costs continue to fall, utilities and other investors have announced plans for over $70 billion in new gas-fired power plant construction through 2025. RMI research finds that 90% of this proposed capacity is more costly than equivalent [clean energy portfolios, which consist of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies] and, if those plants are built anyway, they would be uneconomic to continue operating in 2035.”

The economics side with renewables – but with solar, wind, geothermal comprising only 12% of the energy pie, and hydropower at 7%, do renewables have the capacity to meet the nation’s energy needs? Yes! Even the Energy Information Administration, a notorious skeptic of renewable energy’s potential, forecasted renewables would beat out natural gas in terms of electricity generation by 2050 in their 2020 Annual Energy Outlook.

This prediction doesn’t take into account any future legislation limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A ban on fracking or policies under a Green New Deal could push renewables into the lead much sooner than 2050.

In a void of national leadership on the transition to cleaner energy, a few states have bolstered their renewable portfolio.

How does your state generate electricity?
Legend

Figure 2. Electricity generation state-wide by source, 2019. Data from EIA.

One final factor to consider – the pie pieces on these state charts aren’t weighted equally, with some states’ capacity to generate electricity far greater than others.  The top five electricity producers are Texas, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

Transportation

In 2018, approximately 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was for transportation. To understand the scale of infrastructure that serves this sector, it’s helpful to click on the petroleum refineries, crude oil rail terminals, and crude oil pipelines on the map.

Map of transportation infrastructure

Transportation Fuel Infrastructure. Data from EIA.

The majority of gasoline we use in our cars in the US is produced domestically. Crude oil from wells goes to refineries to be processed into products like diesel fuel and gasoline. Gasoline is taken by pipelines, tanker, rail, or barge to storage terminals (add the “petroleum product terminal” and “petroleum product pipelines” legend items), and then by truck to be further processed and delivered to gas stations.

The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for crude oil will reach a peak in 2030 due to a rise in electric vehicles, including busses.  Over 75% of the gasoline and diesel displacement by electric vehicles globally has come from electric buses.

China leads the world in this movement. In 2018, just over half of the world’s electric vehicles sales occurred in China. Analysts predict that the country’s oil demand will peak in the next five years thanks to battery-powered vehicles and high-speed rail.

In the United States, the percentage of electric vehicles on the road is small but growing quickly. Tax credits and incentives will be important for encouraging this transition. Almost half of the country’s electric vehicle sales are in California, where incentives are added to the federal tax credit. California also has a  “Zero Emission Vehicle” program, requiring electric vehicles to comprise a certain percentage of sales.

We can’t ignore where electric vehicles are sourcing their power – and for that we must go back up to the electricity generation section. If you’re charging your car in a state powered mainly by fossil fuels (as many are), then the electricity is still tied to fossil fuels.

Petrochemicals

Many of the oil and gas infrastructure on the map doesn’t go towards energy at all, but rather aids in manufacturing petrochemicals – the basis of products like plastic, fertilizer, solvents, detergents, and resins.

This industry is largely concentrated in Texas and Louisiana but rapidly expanding in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

On this map, key petrochemical facilities include natural gas plants, chemical plants, ethane crackers, and natural gas liquid pipelines.

Map of Petrochemical Infrastructure

Petrochemical infrastructure. Data from EIA.

Natural gas processing plants separate components of the natural gas stream to extract natural gas liquids like ethane and propane – which are transported through the natural gas liquid pipelines. These natural gas liquids are key building blocks of the petrochemical industry.

Ethane crackers process natural gas liquids into polyethylene – the most common type of plastic.

The chemical plants on this map include petrochemical production plants and ammonia manufacturing. Ammonia, which is used in fertilizer production, is one of the top synthetic chemicals produced in the world, and most of it comes from steam reforming natural gas.

As we discuss ways to decarbonize the country, petrochemicals must be a major focus of our efforts. That’s because petrochemicals are expected to account for over a third of global oil demand growth by 2030 and nearly half of demand growth by 2050 – thanks largely to an increase in plastic production. The International Energy Agency calls petrochemicals a “blind spot” in the global energy debate.

Petrochemical infrastructure

Petrochemical development off the coast of Texas, November 2019. Photo by Ted Auch, aerial support provided by LightHawk.

Investing in plastic manufacturing is the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to remain relevant in a renewable energy world. As such, we can’t break up with fossil fuels without also giving up our reliance on plastic. Legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act get to the heart of this issue, by pausing construction of new ethane crackers, ensuring the power of local governments to enact plastic bans, and phasing out certain single-use products.

“The greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced”

Mapped out, this web of fossil fuel infrastructure seems like a permanent grid locking us into a carbon-intensive future. But even more overwhelming than the ubiquity of fossil fuels in the US is how quickly this infrastructure has all been built. Everything on this map was constructed since Industrial Revolution, and the vast majority in the last century (Figure 3) – an inch on the mile-long timeline of human civilization.

Figure 3. Global Fossil Fuel Consumption. Data from Vaclav Smil (2017)

In fact, over half of the carbon from burning fossil fuels has been released in the last 30 years. As David Wallace Wells writes in The Uninhabitable Earth, “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”

What will this map look like in the next 30 years?

A recent report on the global economics of the oil industry states, “To phase out petroleum products (and fossil fuels in general), the entire global industrial ecosystem will need to be reengineered, retooled and fundamentally rebuilt…This will be perhaps the greatest industrial challenge the world has ever faced historically.”

Is it possible to build a decentralized energy grid, generated by a diverse array of renewable, local, natural resources and backed up by battery power? Could all communities have the opportunity to control their energy through member-owned cooperatives instead of profit-thirsty corporations? Could microgrids improve the resiliency of our system in the face of increasingly intense natural disasters and ensure power in remote regions? Could hydrogen provide power for energy-intensive industries like steel and iron production? Could high speed rail, electric vehicles, a robust public transportation network and bike-able cities negate the need for gasoline and diesel? Could traditional methods of farming reduce our dependency on oil and gas-based fertilizers? Could  zero waste cities stop our reliance on single-use plastic?

Of course! Technology evolves at lightning speed. Thirty years ago we didn’t know what fracking was and we didn’t have smart phones. The greater challenge lies in breaking the fossil fuel industry’s hold on our political system and convincing our leaders that human health and the environment shouldn’t be externalized costs of economic growth.

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California Governor Gavin Newsom looks at surface expression oil spills

Governor Newsom Must Do More to Address the Cause of Oil Spill Surface Expressions

Chevron and other oil and gas companies in western Kern County have drilled so many oil and gas wells that they have essentially turned this area of California into a block of Swiss cheese. As a result, several of the most over-developed oil fields (in the world!) are suffering from gushing oil seeps known as surface expressions. Since May of 2019, one surface expression alone has spilled over 1.3 million gallons of oil and wastewater in the Cymric Field in southwestern California. Thirteen known surface expressions have been reported actively flowing in the Cymric field in 2019, one for over 15 years (GS5).

Regulators and Governor Newsom’s administration have attempted to address the issue but their response is not enough. Chevron was fined $2.7 million and Governor Newsom personally told Chevron to stop this spill, the location of which is shown below on the map in Figure 1. Oil and gas companies have also been ordered to lower their maximum injection pressures on new wells, limiting a technique called high pressure steam injection. Yet the state has continued to permit new cyclic steam and steam injection wells, the main cause of the surface expressions, including many in the same fields as the active surface expressions. Furthermore, data on new permit applications shows that Chevron and other operators intend to continue expanding their already bloated well counts. These new wells will increase the flow of oil to the surface via the over-abundance of existing older wells that serve as man-made pathways for toxic fluids.

Although Governor Newsom has made positive steps by halting new permits for higher pressure injections, the moratorium’s focus on injection pressure does not address all of the root causes of this epidemic of surface expressions, including over-development of these oil fields. Reducing the maximum injection pressures without also addressing the growing number of injection wells does nothing to reduce the pathways oil uses to travel to the surface. The Governor can reduce the active expressions and limit the risk for future expressions by halting permits for all new oil and gas wells, banning the existing use of steam injection, and forcing oil companies to plug and properly abandon older wells before they fail.

(To see Governor Newsom’s track record on permitting new oil and gas wells, see FracTracker Alliance’s collaboration with Consumer Watchdog at NewsomeWellWatch.com)

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 1. Map of 2018-2019 Cymric Oil Field Surface Expressions. The map includes the locations of surface expressions as well as the locations of new injections wells permitted in 2019 and current applications submitted since November 19, 2019.

Background

Steam injection is used more commonly in California than hydraulic fracturing, due to the nature of California’s abundant geological activity. Steam injection wells include wells devoted solely to injection and others, called cyclic steam wells, that alternate between injection of steam and production of oil and gas. It requires an extreme amount of energy to accomplish this, so they are considered energy intensive. These operations are known collectively as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells.

Steam injection wells increase the volume of oil produced when compared to conventional methods. They do this by injecting steam and water into the low-quality heavy crude produced in California in order to decrease the viscosity and push it towards the bottom holes of the production wells. The steam also pushes oil in other directions unintentionally, such as to the surface where it can spill out becoming a surface expression.

Some of the most notable negative impacts caused by EOR wells in California include greenhouse gas contributions, air and water contamination, and risks to workers.

Environmental Impacts

In addition to the creation of greenhouse gases from burning the fossil fuels extracted from California oil fields, oil and gas operators cause surface expressions and emit methane and other greenhouse gases as they leak out of the ground. The leaking natural gas is full of toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds that degrade the local and regional air quality and exacerbate climate change. The majority of these expressions have not been documented by regulators and the emissions are not considered. The expressions also push oil and wastewater upwards through groundwater, leaving it contaminated. When the oil gets to the surface, it destroys terrestrial habitat for native plants and endangered species such as the long nosed leopard lizard. The seeps are also a major hazard to migratory birds that confuse the pooling oil for water sources.

Worker Safety

Surface expressions do not just ooze oil. When the pressure spreads underground beyond the target formation, it can cause oil, water, steam, rocks, and natural gas to shoot from the ground, presenting a deadly hazard to worker safety. Stories from oil field workers describe periods when oil companies increase steam injection volumes and activity as bringing chaos to the oil fields. Engineers across the region engaged in a high-stakes version of whack-a-mole, rushing to plug one geyser while others broke through elsewhere,” according to Julie Cart with the LA Times.

A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

High Pressure Steaming

The practice of high pressure steam injection is incredibly similar to hydraulic fracturing, but unfortunately is not regulated under the current rules established by State Bill 4 (SB4). The technique is used to stimulate increased production from “unconventional” target formations such as the Monterey Shale. Steam is injected at high pressures, fracturing shale and other sedimentary rocks. High pressure steam injection both opens new pathways in the source rock and decreases the viscosity of heavy crude, allowing crude to flow more easily to the borehole of the well.

In 2016, the oil and gas industry was able to introduce an exemption in the regulations to allow for the stimulation of wells without an SB4 permit, as long as it was using steam, even when the injection pressure was greater than the fracture gradient of the target formation. For the last three years the practice existed in a legal grey area without any oversight. Then, in July of 2019, Governor Newsom’s administration adopted new underground injection control regulations, which explicitly allowed steam injection at pressures above the fracture gradient of the formation (1724.10.3. Maximum Allowable Surface Injection Pressure). That means operators were essentially “fracking”, but using steam to fracture the targeted shale formation instead of water (hydraulic). With the formal approval of the practice, operators ramped up operations resulting in numerous new surface expressions forming and the flow rates of existing surface expressions increasing.

Governor Newsom’s Response

On November 19, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press statement outlining the work his administration is planning to address issues with oil and gas drilling such as surface expressions. Along with two other strategies, the Governor called for an immediate end to high pressure cyclic steaming. This new ban was meant to stop the existing surface expressions in oil fields, and prevent any new ones. Unfortunately, the activities of Chevron and the other operators in these fields are likely to prevent the Governor’s intervention from having the intended impact. These operators are planning to drill many new injection wells in close proximity to the surface expressions, in effect increasing the flow of current surface expressions and increasing the risk of more in the future. From the time of the press release to the end of 2019, oil and gas operators applied for permits authorizing 184 new steam injection wells. The majority of these permits are in the same fields as the surface expressions.

Injection Pressure

The oil and gas industry has blamed the surface expressions entirely on the geology of the oil fields in the southwestern region of Kern, specifically on the brittle diatomite crust that lies above many of Central California’s oil formations. The thing is, diatomite is common throughout the Monterey Shale. In fact, the entire Monterey formation of the Santa Barbara-Ventura coast generally consists of an upper siliceous member (diatomaceous) (Stanford, 2013; Issacs 1981). The risk is not unique to just the Cymric, McKittrick and Midway-Sunset Fields, yet these three fields, along with the Lost Hills field to the north, have the highest counts of reported surface expressions, as shown in the map below in Figure 2.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 2. Map of California well density and surface expressions. The map visualizes California Department of Conservation (CA DOC) data summing surface expressions by oil field. Locations of new injections permit applications submitted since November 19, 2019 are also shown, summed by section.

 

These fields also have the highest concentration of wells in the state. Surface expressions in the oil fields of western Kern County provide a warning for the rest of the state. Over-development of an oil field is a major contributor to the potential for surface expressions. In the case of the Cymric field, there are simply too many wells drilled in a limited area. This is the reason Chevron shut down injection wells within 1,000’ of the surface expression, but even then the seep did not stop.

The map in Figure 2 shows that the Cymric field has the highest density of active and abandoned oil and gas wells in the state, providing plenty of man-made pathways to the surface. Our analysis shows that there are at least 319 reported wells drilled within 1,000’ of the 1Y surface expression. Another 154 wells are drilled within 1,000’ of the GS5 expression that has been actively flowing since 2003, including 11 active steam injection wells.

Wells in the Cymric field have been drilled in such numbers and in such close proximity that downhole communication between the wells is unavoidable. “Downhole communication” occurs when wells drilled in close proximity leak oil, natural gas and other formation materials between boreholes. This is a dangerous situation, for public health and worker safety. Downhole communication with unknown and known abandoned wells with brittle casings or active wells with poorly engineered casing that shear could even “blow sky high.”

To understand the spatial distribution of oil and gas wells in California, FracTracker used GIS to conduct a hot spot analysis. The parameters included all oil and gas wells in the state of California using California Department of Conservation (CA DOC) data (updated 1/4/20). Results of the analysis are shown in the map in Figure 2. Areas where the analysis showed statistically significant clusters of wells in high density are shown in purple, from low levels of statistical significance to high. Of note, the region with the highest level of statistically significant well density is located along the western side of Kern County. It is in the very same localized area as the eight surface expressions in the Cymric field, and includes the Cymric, McKittrick, and north end of the Midway-Sunset fields.

 

FieldNew Steam Well Permit Count
Midway-Sunset427
Cymric197
Belridge, South150
Kern River125
McKittrick105
Coalinga88
Poso Creek71
San Ardo69
Kern Front43
Lost Hills20
Arroyo Grande15
Cat Canyon10
Edison5
Orcutt4
Placerita1
Grand Total1130

Table 1. Count of new steam well permits approved in 2019, by field. Data taken from CA DOC Weekly Summary of Permits Data (ftp://ftp.consrv.ca.gov/pub/oil/).

 

OperatorNew Steam Well Permit Count
Aera Energy LLC381
Chevron U.S.A Inc.360
Berry Petroleum Company, LLC276
Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC112
E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation65
Seneca Resources Management Corporation61
California Resources Production Corporation46
Vaquero Energy, Inc.10
Crimson Resource Management Corp.5
Naftex Operating Company5
Kern River Holdings, Inc.4
Santa Maria Energy, LLC4
Grand Total1329

Table 2. Count of new steam well permits approved in 2019, by operator. Data taken from CA DOC Weekly Summary of Permits Data (ftp://ftp.consrv.ca.gov/pub/oil/).

State’s Response

On November 19, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press statement outlining his administration’s plan to address several issues with oil and gas drilling. Among them, the Governor called for an immediate moratorium on issuing new permits for “high pressure cyclic steaming.” This new moratorium was meant curb the rise of surface expressions. Unfortunately the activities of Chevron and the other operators in these fields are likely to undermine the Governor’s action. These operators are planning to drill many new injection wells in close proximity to the surface expressions, in effect increasing the flow of current surface expressions and increasing the risk of more in the future. From the time of the press release to the end of 2019, oil and gas operators applied for permits authorizing 184 new steam injection wells. The majority of these permits are in the same fields as the surface expressions. While the newly implemented moratorium will prevent future permits, permits issued prior to November 19, 2019 remain valid and will continue injecting at high pressure.

The regulatory agency, formerly DOGGR and now CalGEM, has already approved 1,330 new steam injection wells during Governor Newsom’s first year in office; 874 in the Cymric, McKrittrick, and Midway-Sunset fields alone where there are already over 9,300 operating. For summaries of new steam well permits approved in 2019 by field and operator, see Table 1 and 2 below. Even though Chevron stated that they ceased operations within 1,000 feet of the surface expressions (see map in Figure 1), 17 new steam injection wells have been permitted within 1,000 feet in 2019 alone. After the death of David Taylor in 2015, regulators established an 800’ safety buffer zone from that expression, but that safety measure has been ignored for more recent spills. Today, 27 steam injection wells continue to operate and three new permits are being considered within 800’ of the largest 2019 spill. Regulators are now considering permits for an additional 83 new steam injection wells in the same sections of the Cymric oil field closest to these recent surface expressions.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The state’s current solution for reducing surface expressions – a moratorium on high pressure steam injection – is not enough. Chevron and regulators say that it is unclear what exactly is causing the surface expressions, but the data speaks for itself. Too many wells have been drilled in too close proximity. Lowering the injection pressures of individual injection wells alone will not improve the situation if more injection wells are approved into the same formation. Governor Newsom can begin the remediation by stopping the state from permitting new oil and gas wells, banning existing steam injection, and properly plugging and abandoning the leaking wells in these fields. If this is not a priority, California will undoubtedly experience more of these situations, where the density of wells leads to dangerous conditions and increased emissions in more fields, such as the Ventura, Oxnard, and Kern River. It is clear that in addition to high injection pressures, these impacts are the result of over-development via lackadaisical permit reviews and irresponsible environmental policy.

By Kyle Ferrar, MPH, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Feature Photo by Irfan Khan/LA Times via AP, Pool.

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Governor Newsom Well Watch website for California drilling

Oil & Gas Well Permits Issued By Newsom Administration Rival Those Issued Under Gov. Jerry Brown

FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog worked together to produce a map of all oil and gas permits issued in 2019, under Governor Newsom’s watch. Our previous collaborative reports revealed conflicts of interest within the oil and gas regulatory agency, and showed that the rate of permitting new fracking operations and all oil and gas well permits had doubled for the first six months of 2019, as compared to 2018 – Governor Jerry Brown’s last year in office. We have once again updated the data, with supporting maps and visuals to show the state of drilling in the State of California.

“The numbers give fresh urgency on the need to order a 2,500-foot health barrier between oil industry operations and people living as close as just yards away,” Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance wrote in a letter to Governor Newsom. “Action on this and a start to phasing out oil and gas production in the state simply cannot wait for the results of more time-consuming studies.”

 

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Permitting New Oil and Gas Wells Under the Newsom Administration

California regulators halt well permitting after Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker reveal a surge in well permits under California Governor Newsom

October 24th, 2019 update: 

There have been several exciting updates since FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog released a report on fracking and regulatory corruption under Governor Newsom’s administration, detailed in the article below.

On July 11th, 2019, immediately following the report’s release, Governor Newsom fired Ken Harris, head of California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

Newsom’s chief of staff Ann O’Leary stated:
“The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction. In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly.”
FracTracker Alliance supports the governor’s decision and hopes that new leadership acts in the best interests of Californians while moving the state towards 100% renewable energy.

Two months later in September, it was announced that no new fracking permits had been approved in California since the report was issued. We’re thrilled to see this immediate cessation. Yet, while new fracking activity has halted, other forms of oil and gas development continue to threaten Californian’s health and natural resources.

FracTracker Alliance’s review of public records found that DOGGR issued approximately 1,200 permits for steam injection and other “enhanced recovery” techniques through September 2nd, a 60% increase from the 749 permits issued in the same period last year. Sources within DOGGR revealed that at least 40 illegal oil spills from wells were ongoing in Kern and Santa Barbara Counties.

A final development came on October 12th, when Governor Newsom signed a bill to prevent oil and gas development on state lands. As state lands often neighbor federal lands, this bill will play a role in protecting federal land from pipelines, wells, and other polluting infrastructure. Newsom also changed the name of DOGGR to the “Geologic Energy Management Division,” and modified its mission to include protecting public health and environmental quality.

We remain hopeful that Newsom will take a bold stance in leading California away from fossil fuels.

Original July 11th, 2019 FracTracker article:

FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog have uncovered new data showing an increase in oil and gas permitting by California regulators in 2019 compared to 2018, calling into question Governor Gavin Newsom’s climate commitment. Even more concerning, this investigation found that state regulators are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate.

FracTracker Alliance’s new report with Consumer Watchdog compares oil and gas permitting policies of the current Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration with that of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.

The former lieutenant governor to Brown, Governor Newsom has set out to make a name for himself. As part of stepping out of Brown’s shadow, Newsom has expressed support for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. Governor Newsom’s 2020 budget plan includes environmental justice measures and an unprecedented investment to plan for this transition that includes investments in job training.

Yet five months into Governor Newsom’s first term, regulators are on track to allow companies to drill and “frack” more new oil and gas wells than Brown allowed in 2018. The question now is: will Governor Newsom actually take the next step that Brown could not, and prioritize the reduction of oil extraction in California?

In addition, the Consumer Watchdog report reveals that eight California regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) are heavily invested in the oil companies they regulate. FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog are calling for the the removal of DOGGR officials with conflicts of interest, and an immediate freeze on new well approval. Read the letter to Governor Newsom here.

Governor Brown’s Legacy

Around the world, Brown is recognized as a climate warrior. His support of solar energy technology and criticisms of the nuclear and fossil fuel industry was ultimately unique in the late 1970’s.

In 1980, during his second term as Governor and short presidential campaign, he decried that fellow democrat and incumbent President Jimmy Carter had made a “Faustian bargain” with the oil industry. Since then, he has continued to push for state controls on greenhouse gas emissions. To end his political career, Brown hosted an epic climate summit in San Francisco, California, which brought together climate leaders, politicians, and scientists from around the world.

While Brown championed the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, his policies in California were contradictory. While front-line communities called for setbacks from schools, playgrounds, hospitals and other sensitive receptors, Brown ignored these requests. Instead he sought to spur oil production in the state. Brown even used state funds to explore his private properties for oil and mineral resources that could be exploited for personal profit.

Brown’s terms in the Governor’s office show trends of increasing oil and gas production. The chart in Figure 1 shows that during his first term (1979-1983), California oil extraction grew towards a peak in production. Then in 2011 at the start of Brown’s second term (2011-2019), crude oil production again inflected and continued to increase through 2015, ending a 25-year period of relatively consistent reduction.

We are therefore interested in looking at existing data to understand if moving forward, Governor Newsom will continue Brown’s legacy of support for California oil production. We start by looking at the first half of 2019, the beginning of Governor Newsom’s term, to see if his administration will also allow the oil and gas industry to increase extraction in California.

Figure 1. Chart of California’s historic oil production, from the EIA

Analysis

The FracTracker Alliance has collaborated with the non-profit Consumer Watchdog to review records of oil and gas well permits issued in 2018 and thus far into 2019.

Records of approved permits were obtained from the CA Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). Weekly summaries of approved permits for the 52 weeks of 2018 and the first 22 weeks of 2019 (January 1st-June 3rd) were compiled, cleaned, and analyzed. Notices of well stimulations were also included in this analysis. The data is mapped here in the Consumer Watchdog report, as well as in more detail below in the map in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Map of California’s Permits, 2018 and 2019


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Findings

At FracTracker, we are known for more than simply mapping, so we have, of course, extracted all the information that we can from this data. The dataset of DOGGR permits included details on the type of permit as well as when, where, and who the permits were granted. With this information we were able to answer several questions.

Of particular note and worthy of prefacing the data analysis was the observation of the very low numbers of permits granted in the LA Basin and Southern California, as compared to the Central Valley and Central Coast of California.

First, what are the types of permits issued?

Regulators require operators to apply for permits for a number of activities at well sites. This dataset includes permits to drill wells, including re-drilling existing wells, permits to rework existing wells, and permits to “sidetrack”. Well stimulations using techniques such as hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing also require permits, as outline in CA State Bill 4.

How many permits have regulators issued?

In 2018, DOGGR approved 4,368 permits, including 2,124 permits to drill wells. In 2019, DOGGR approved 2,366 permits from January 1 – June 3, including 1,212 permits to drill wells. At that rate, DOGGR will approve 5,607 total permits by the end of 2019, including 2,872 wells.

That is an increase of 28.3% for total permits and an increase of 35.3% for drilling oil and gas wells.

DOGGR also issued 222 permits for well stimulations in 2018. So far in 2019, DOGGR has issued 191 permits for well stimulations, an increase of 103.2%.

Who is applying for permits?

As shown in Table 1 below, the operators Chevron U.S.A. Inc., Aera Energy LLC ( a joint conglomerate of Shell Oil Company and ExxonMobil), and Berry Petroleum Company, LLC dominate the drilling permit counts for both 2018 and 2019.

Aera has obtained the most drilling permits thus far into 2019, while Chevron obtained the most permits in 2018, almost 100 more than Aera. In 2019, Chevron was issued almost 3 times the amount of rework permits as Aera, and both have outpaced Berry Petroleum.

Table 1. Permit Counts by Operator

Where are the permits being issued?

Data presented in Table 2 indicate which fields are being targeted for drilling and rework permits. While the 2019 data represents less than half the year, the number of drilling permits is almost equal to the total drilling permit count for 2018.

Majority players in the Midway-Sunset field are Berry Petroleum and Chevron. South Belridge is dominated by Aera Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Cymric field is mostly Chevron and Aera Energy; McKittrick is mostly Area Energy and Berry Petroleum. The Kern River field, which has by far the most reworks (most likely due to its massive size and age) is entirely Chevron.

Table 2. Permit Counts by Field

Conclusions

Be sure to also read the Consumer Watchdog report on FracTracker’s permit data!

The details of this analysis show that DOGGR has allowed for a modest increase in permits for oil and gas wells in 2019. The increase in well stimulations in 2019 is estimated to be larger, at 103.2%.

There was the consideration that this could be a seasonal phenomenon since we extrapolated from data encompassing just less than the first half of the year. But upon reviewing data for several other years, that does not seem to be the case. The general trend was instead increasing numbers of permits as each year progresses, with smaller permit counts through the first half of the year.

Oil prices do not provide much explanation either. The chart in Figure 3 shows that crude prices were higher in 2018 than they have been for the vast majority of 2019. The increase in permits could be the result of oil and gas operators like Chevron and Aera anticipating a stricter regulatory climate under Governor Newsom. Operators may be securing  as many permits as possible, while DOGGR is still liberally issuing them. This could be a consequence of the Governor’s recognition of the need for California to begin a managed decline of fossil fuel production and end oil drilling in California.

Could this be an early industry death rattle?

Figure 3. Crude prices in 2018 and 2019

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Urban Drilling in Los Angeles

Impact of a 2,500′ Oil and Gas Well Setback in California

Why does California need setbacks?

A new bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi (D), AB345, seeks to establish a minimum setback distance of 2,500′ between oil and gas wells and sensitive sites including occupied dwellings, schools, healthcare facilities, and playgrounds. A setback distance for oil and gas development is necessary from a public health standpoint, as the literature unequivocally shows that oil and gas wells and the associated infrastructure pose a significant risk to the communities that live near them.

FracTracker Alliance conducted a spatial analysis to understand the impact a 2,500’ well setback would have on oil and gas expansion in California. In a previous report, The Sky’s Limit California (Oil Change Internal, 2018), Fractracker data showed that 8,493 active or newly permitted oil and gas wells were located within a 2,500’ buffer of sensitive sites. At the time it was estimated that 850,000 Californians lived within the setback distance of at least one of these oil and gas wells.

This does not bode well for Californians, as a recently published FracTracker literature review found that health impacts resulting from living near oil and gas development include cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms. Studies also showed that health impacts increased with the density of oil and gas development, suggesting that health impacts are dose dependent. Living closer to more oil and gas sites means you are exposed to more health-threatening contamination.

An established setback is therefore necessary to alleviate some of these health burdens carried by the most vulnerable Environmental Justice (EJ) communities. Health assessments by the Los Angeles County Department of Health and studies on ambient air quality near oil fields by Occidental College Researchers support the assumption that 2,500′ is the necessary distance to help alleviate the harsh conditions of degraded air quality. Living at a distance beyond 2,500′ from an oil and gas site does not mean you are not impacted by air and water contamination. Rather the concentrations of contaminants will be less harmful. In fact studies showed that health impacts increased with proximity to oil and gas, with associated impacts potentially experienced by communities living at distances up to 9.3 miles (Currie et al. 2017) and 10 miles (Whitworth et al. 2017).

Assembly Bill 345

This analysis assesses the potential impact of State Assembly member Al Muratsuchi’s Assembly Bill 345 on California’s oil and gas extraction and production. Specifically, AB345 establishes a minimum 2,500’ setback requirement for future oil and gas development. It does not however directly address existing oil and gas permits.

The bill includes the following stipulations and definitions:

  • All new oil and gas development, that is not on federal land, are required to be located at least 2,500′ from residences, schools, childcare facilities, playgrounds, hospitals, or health clinics.
  • In this case the redrilling of a previously plugged and abandoned oil or gas well or other rework operation is to be considered new oil and gas development.
  • “Oil and gas development” means exploration for and drilling production and processing of oil, gas or other gaseous and liquid hydrocarbons; the flowlines; and the treatment of waste associated with that exploration, drilling, production, and processing.
  • “Oil and gas development” also includes hydraulic fracturing and other stimulation activities.
  • “Rework operations” means operations performed in the well bore of an oil or gas well after the well is completed and equipped for production, done for the purpose of securing, restoring, or improving hydrocarbon production in the subsurface interval that is the open to production in the well bore.
  • The bill does not include routine repairs or well maintenance work.

Map

Figure 1. Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites. The map below shows the oil and gas wells and permits that fall within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites.  Summaries of these well counts and discussions of these well types are included below as well.

Map of Wells within a 2,500′ Setback Distance from Sensitive Receptor Sites

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

 

Environmental Justice

The California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA) has just released their 2018 Environmental Justice Agency Assessment, which used FracTracker’s data and mapping to assess environmental equity in the state regulation of oil permitting and drilling. The report issued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) a failing grade of ‘F’. According to the report, “DOGGR is aware that the proposed locations of many drilling activities are in or near EJ communities, but approves permits irrespective of known health and safety risks associated with neighborhood drilling.”

FracTracker’s analysis of low income communities in Kern County shows the following:

  • There are 16,690 active oil and gas production wells located in census blocks with median household incomes of less than 80% of Kern’s area median income (AMI).
  • Therefore about 25% (16,690 out of 67,327 total) of Kern’s oil and gas wells are located within low-income communities.
  • Of these 16,690 wells, 5,364 of them are located within the 2,500′ setback distance from sensitive receptor sites such as schools and hospitals (32%) vs 13.1% for the rest of the state.

For more information on the breakdown of Kern County wells, see our informational table, here.

DOGGR wells

Using freshly published Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) data (6/3/19), we find that there are 9,835 active wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, representing 13.1% of the total 74,775 active wells in the state.

There are 6,558 idle wells that fall within the 2,500’ setback distance, of nearly 30,000 total idle wells in the state. Putting these idle wells back online would be blocked if the wells require reworks to restart or ramp up production. For the most part operators do not intend for most idle wells to come back online. Rather operators are just avoiding the costs of plugging and properly abandoning the wells. To learn more about this issue, see our recent coverage of idle wells here.

Of the 3,783 permitted wells not yet in production, or “new wells,” 298 (7.8%) are located within the 2,500’ buffer zone.

Getting a count of plugged wells within the setback distance is more difficult because there is not a complete dataset, but there are over 30,000 wells in areas with active production that would be blocked from being redrilled. In total there are 122,209 plugged wells listed in the DOGGR database.

Permits

We also looked at permit applications that were approved in 2018, including permits for drilling new wells, well reworks, deepening wells and well sidetracks. This may be the most insightful of all the analyses.

Within the 2018 permit data, we find that 4,369 permits were approved. Of those 518 permits (about 12%) were granted within the proposed 2,500’ setback. Of the permits 25% were for new drilling, 73% were for reworks, and 2% were for deepening existing wells. By county, 42% were in Kern, 24% were in Los Angeles, 14% in Ventura, 6% in Santa Barbara, 3% in Fresno, and 2% or less in Glenn, Monterey, Sutter, San Joaquin, Colusa, Solano, Orange and Tehama, in descending order.

SCAQMD Notices

In LA, Rule 1148.2 requires operators to notify the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of activities at well sites, including stimulations and reworks. These data points are reiterative of the “permits” discussed above, but the dataset is specific to the SCAQMD and includes additional activities. Of the 1,361 reports made to the air district since the beginning of 2018 through April 1, 2019; 634 (47%) were for wells that would be impacted by the setback distance; 412 incidences were for something other than “well maintenance” of which 348 were for gravel packing, 4 for matrix acidizing, and 65 were for well drilling. We are not sure where gravel packing falls, in reference to AB345.

A major consideration is that this rule may force many active wells into an idle status. If the onus of plugging wells falls on the state, these additional idle wells could be a major liability for the public. Fortunately AB1328 recently defined new idle well rules. The rules entice operators to plug and abandon idle wells. If rule 1328 is effective at reducing the stock of idle wells, these two bills could complement each other. (For more information on idle wells, read FracTracker’s recent analysis, here: https://www.fractracker.org/2019/04/idle-wells-are-a-major-risk/)

State Bill 4 Well Stimulation Reporting

We also analyzed data reported to DOGGR under the well stimulation requirements of CA State Bill 4 (SB4), the 2013 bill that set a framework for regulating hydraulic fracturing in California. Part of the bill required an independent scientific study to be conducted on oil and gas well stimulation, including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing. Since 2016 operators have been required to secure special permits to stimulate wells, which includes hydraulic fracturing and several other techniques. To learn more about this state regulation read FracTracker’s coverage of SB4. From January 1, 2016 to April 1, 2019, there have been 576 well stimulation treatment permits granted under the SB4 regulations. Only 1 hydraulic fracturing event, permitted in Goleta, would have been impacted by a 2,500’ setback in 2018.

Support for AB345

After being approved by the CA Assembly Natural Resources Committee in a 7-6 vote, the bill did not make it up for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the 2019 legislative session.  The bill was described by the committee as “promising policies that need more time for discussion.” AB345 is now a two-year bill in the state Senate and will be reconsidered by the committee in January of 2020. The Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, Lorena Gonzalez, indicated her general support for the policy and committed to working with the author to find a way to move the bill forward at the end of the session.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance 

Feature image by David McNew, Getty Images

https://www.kvpr.org/post/dormant-risky-new-state-law-aims-prevent-problems-idle-oil-and-gas-wells

Idle Wells are a Major Risk

Designating a well as “idle” is a temporary solution for operators, but comes at a great economic and environmental cost to Californians 

Idle wells are oil and gas wells which are not in use for production, injection, or other purposes, but also have not been permanently sealed. During a well’s productive phase, it is pumping and producing oil and/or natural gas which profit its operators, such as Exxon, Shell, or California Resources Corporation. When the formations of underground oil pools have been drained, production of oil and gas decreases. Certain techniques such as hydraulic fracturing may be used to stimulate additional production, but at some point operators decide a well is no longer economically sound to produce oil or gas. Operators are supposed to retire the wells by filling the well-bores with cement to permanently seal the well, a process called “plugging.”

A second, impermanent option is for operators to forego plugging the well to a later date and designate the well as idle. Instead of plugging a well, operators cap the well. Capping a well is much cheaper than plugging a well and wells can be capped and left “idle” for indefinite amounts of time.

Well plugging

Unplugged wells can leak explosive gases into neighborhoods and leach toxic fluids into drinking waters. Plugging a well helps protect groundwater and air quality, and prevents greenhouse gasses from escaping and expediting climate change. Therefore it’s important that idle wells are plugged.

While plugging a well does not entirely eliminate all risk of groundwater contamination or leaking greenhouse gases, (read more on FracTracker’s coverage of plugged wells) it does reduce these risks. The longer wells are left idle, the higher the risk of well casing failure. Over half of California’s idle wells have been idle for more than 10 years, and about 4,700 have been idle for over 25 years. A report by the U.S. EPA noted that California does not provide the necessary regulatory oversite of idle wells to protect California’s underground sources of drinking water.

Wells are left idle for two main reasons: either the cost of plugging is prohibitive, or there may be potential for future extraction when oil and gas prices will fetch a higher profit margin.  While idle wells are touted by industry as assets, they are in fact liabilities. Idle wells are often dumped to smaller or questionable operators.

Orphaned wells

Wells that have passed their production phase can also be “orphaned.” In some cases, it is possible that the owner and operator may be dead! Or, as often happens, the smaller operators go out of business with no money left over to plug their wells or resume pumping. When idle wells are orphaned from their operators, the state becomes responsible for the proper plugging and abandonment.

The cost to plug a well can be prohibitively high for small operators. If the operators (who profited from the well) don’t plug it, the costs are externalized to states, and therefore, the public. For example, the state of California plugged two wells in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles at a cost of over $1 million. The costs are much higher in urban areas than, say, the farmland and oilfields of the Central Valley.

Since 1977, California has permanently sealed about 1,400 orphan wells at a cost of $29.5 million, according to reports by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). That’s an average cost of about $21,000 per well, not accounting for inflation. From 2002-2018, DOGGR plugged about 600 wells at a cost of $18.6 million; an average cost of about $31,000.

Where are they?

Map of California’s Idle Wells


View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The map above shows the locations of idle wells in California.  There are 29,515 wells listed as idle and 122,467 plugged or buried wells as of the most recent DOGGR data, downloaded 3/20/19. There are a total of 245,116 oil and gas wells in the state, including active, idle, new (permitted) or plugged.

Of the over 29,000 wells are listed as idle, only 3,088 (10.4%) reported production in 2018. Operators recovered 338,201 barrels of oil and 178,871 cubic feet of gas from them in 2018. Operators injected 1,550,436,085 gallons of water/steam into idle injection wells in 2018, and 137,908,884 cubic feet of gas.

The tables below (Tables 1-3) provide the rankings for idle well counts by operator, oil field, and county (respectively).  Chevron, Aera, Shell, and California Resources Corporation have the most idle wells. The majority of the Chevron idle wells are located in the Midway Sunset Field. Well over half of all idle wells are located in Kern County.

Table 1. Idle Well Counts by Operator
Operator Name Idle Well Count
1 Chevron U.S.A. Inc. 6,292
2 Aera Energy LLC 5,811
3 California Resources Production Corporation 3,708
4 California Resources Elk Hills, LLC 2,016
5 Berry Petroleum Company, LLC 1,129
6 E & B Natural Resources Management Corporation 991
7 Sentinel Peak Resources California LLC 842
8 HVI Cat Canyon, Inc. 534
9 Seneca Resources Company, LLC 349
10 Crimson Resource Management Corp. 333

 

Table 2. Idle Well Counts by Oil Field
Oil Field Count by Field
1 Midway-Sunset 5,333
2 Unspecified 2,385
3 Kern River 2,217
4 Belridge, South 2,075
5 Coalinga 1,729
6 Elk Hills 958
7 Buena Vista 887
8 Lost Hills 731
9 Cymric 721
10 Cat Canyon 661

 

Table 3. Idle Well Counts by County
County Count by County
1 Kern 17,276
2 Los Angeles 3,217
3 Fresno 2,296
4 Ventura 2,022
5 Santa Barbara 1,336
6 Orange 752
7 Monterey 399
8 Kings 212
9 San Luis Obispo 202
10 Sutter 191

 

Risks

According to the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) the count of idle wells in California has increased from just over 20,000 idle wells in 2015 to nearly 30,000 wells in 2018! That’s an increase of nearly 50% in just 3 years!

Nobody knows how many orphaned wells are actually out there, beneath homes, in forests, or in the fields of farmers. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are more than 1 million of them across the country, most of them undocumented. In California, DOGGR officially reports that there are 885 orphaned wells in the state.

A U.S. EPA report on idle wells published in 2011 warned that existing monitoring requirements of idle wells in California was “not consistent with adequate protection” of underground sources of drinking water. Idle wells may have leaks and damage that go unnoticed for years, according to an assessment by the state Department of Conservation (DOC). The California Council on Science and Technology is actively researching this and many other issues associated with idle and orphaned wells. The published report will include policy recommendations considering the determined risks. The report will determine the following:

  • State liability for the plugging and abandoning of deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Assessment of costs associated with plugging and abandoning deserted and orphaned wells and decommissioning facilities attendant to such wells
  • Exploration of mechanisms to ameliorate plugging, abandoning, and decommissioning burdens on the state, including examples from other regions and questions for policy makers to consider based on state policies

Current regulation

As of 2018, new CA legislation is in effect to incentivize operators to properly plug and abandon their stocks of idle wells. In California, idle wells are defined as wells that have not had a 6-month continuous period of production over a 2-year period (previously a 5-year period). The new regulations require operators to pay idle well fees.  The fees also contribute towards the plugging and proper abandonment of California’s existing stock of orphaned wells. The new fees are meant to act as bonds to cover the cost of plugging wells, but the fees are far too low:

  • $150 for each well that has been idle for 3 years or longer, but less than 8 years
  • $300 for each well that has been idle for 8 years or longer, but less than 15 years
  • $750 for each well that has been idle for 15 years or longer, but less than 20 years
  • $1,500 for each well that has been idle for 20 years or longer

Operators are also allowed to forego idle well fees if they institute long-term idle well management and elimination plans. These management plans require operators to plug a certain number of idle wells each year.

In February 2019, State Assembly member Chris Holden introduced an idle oil well emissions reporting bill. Assembly bill 1328 requires operators to monitor idle and abandoned wells for leaks. Operators are also required to report hydrocarbon emission leaks discovered during the well plugging process. The collected results will then be reported publicly by the CA Department of Conservation. According to Holden, “Assembly Bill 1328 will help solve a critical knowledge gap associated with aging oil and gas infrastructure in California.”

While the majority of idle wells are located in Kern County, many are also located in California’s South Coast region. Due to the long history and high density of wells in the Los Angeles, the city has additional regulations. City rules indicate that oil wells left idle for over one year must be shut down or reactivated within a month after the city fire chief tells them to do so.

Who is responsible?

All of California’s wells, from Kern County to three miles offshore, on private and public lands, are managed by DOGGR, a division of the state’s Department of Conservation. Responsibilities include establishing and enforcing the requirements and procedures for permitting wells, managing drilling and production, and at the end of a well’s lifecycle, plugging and “abandoning” it.

To help ensure operator liability for the entire lifetime of a well, bonds or well fees are required in most states. In 2018, California updated the bonding requirements for newly permitted oil and gas wells. These fees are in addition to the aforementioned idle well fees. Operators have the option of paying a blanket bond or a bond amount per well. In 2018, these fees raised $4.3 million.

Individual well fees:

  • Wells less than 10,000 feet deep: $10,000
  • Wells more than 10,000 feet deep: $25,000

Blanket fees:

  • Less than 50 wells: $200,000
  • 50 to 500 wells: $400,000
  • 500 to 10,000 wells: $2,000,000
  • Over 10,000 wells: $3,000,000

With an average cost of at least $31,000 to plug a well, California’s new bonding requirements are still insufficient. Neither the updated individual nor blanket fees provide even half the cost required to plug a typical well.

Conclusions

Strategies for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry are necessary to make the proposal a reality. Requiring the industry operators to shut down, plug and properly abandon wells is a step in the right direction, but California’s new bonding and idle well fees are far too low to cover the cost of orphan wells or to encourage the plugging of idle wells. Additionally, it must be stated that even properly abandoned wells have a legacy of causing groundwater contamination and leaking greenhouse gases such as methane and other toxic VOCs into the atmosphere.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo: Kerry Klein, Valley Public Radio