The toxic legacy of old oil wells: California’s multibillion-dollar problem

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ARVIN, Calif. (LA Times) — Across much of California, fossil fuel companies are leaving thousands of oil and gas wells unplugged and idle, potentially threatening the health of people living nearby and handing taxpayers a multibillion-dollar bill for the environmental cleanup.

From Kern County to Los Angeles, companies haven’t set aside anywhere near enough money to ensure these drilling sites are cleaned up and made safe for future generations, according to a months-long data analysis and investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Center for Public Integrity.

Of particular concern are about 35,000 wells sitting idle, with production suspended, half of them for more than a decade. Though California recently toughened its regulations to ensure more cleanup funds are available, those measures don’t go far enough, according to a recent state report and the Times/Public Integrity analysis.

California’s oil industry is in decline, which increases the chances that companies will go out of business. That in turn could leave the state with the costs for cleaning up their drilling sites, which if left unremediated can contaminate water supplies and waft fumes into people’s homes.

Under federal, state and local laws, fossil fuel companies are required to post funds, called bonds, to ensure that wells are ultimately plugged and remediated. These set-aside funds are a response to the oil industry’s history in the United States, in which thousands of companies went out of business without banking enough financial reserves to pay for remediation.

Industry representatives say they are doing their part to pay for cleanup in California, but their bonds are woefully inadequate to meet the expected costs. The Times/Public Integrity investigation found that bonds posted to the state by California’s seven largest drillers, which account for more than 75% of oil and gas wells, amount to about $230, on average, for every well they must decommission. Other bonds held by federal and local regulators don’t significantly raise those amounts.

By contrast, the average per-well cost for capping wells and dismantling associated surface infrastructure in California is between $40,000 and $152,000, depending on whether a well is in a rural or urban area, according to a study released in January by the California Council on Science and Technology.

The result is a yawning gap between what the industry has provided and what ultimately will be needed. Companies have given the state only $110 million to clean up the state’s onshore oil and gas wells, the council found. In actuality, it could cost roughly $6 billion for that cleanup, according to a Times/Public Integrity analysis of state data provided to the science and technology council.

Decommissioning offshore oil wells and platforms, which is not included in those figures, will cost several billion dollars.

“These liabilities are hiding in plain sight,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “They’re huge, but somehow they’ve become invisible to us.”

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