Assemblymember Gregg Hart’s newly passed bill would have helped Santa Barbara County rein in the chronic environmental transgressions caused by the oil company formerly known as Greka. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

More than 1,000 of the oil and gas wells that dot the rolling hills out in Cat Canyon and the Cuyama and Santa Maria valleys have been left idled by oil and gas producers as their yield or the price of oil fell. Any that prove to be orphaned could qualify for $61.5 million in new federal funds allocated to California to seal up and shut down abandoned wells.

The U.S. Department of the Interior funding is in the first phase of President Biden’s giant infrastructure bill passed in November, with most of the state’s 5,356 orphan wells found in Santa Barbara, Kern, Fresno, Ventura, and Los Angeles counties. Nationwide, $4.7 billion was allocated for the new program to plug deserted wells for reasons of health and safety, job production, and methane reduction.

Santa Barbara County’s Energy Division counts 212 orphan wells in Cat Canyon, said Supervising Planner Errin Briggs, left abandoned after Greka Energy went bankrupt in 2019. The state’s count includes three categories of well: orphan, deserted, and potentially deserted. The majority of Santa Barbara’s 1,000 wells are deserted, said a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation, which means there’s a final plug and abandonment order but the financial resources of the operator is being determined. A potentially deserted well shows evidence there is no responsible operator, such as the nonpayment of idle well fees, and is under review. An orphan well has no responsible operator able to cover the costs of plugging and abandonment.

“Abandoned wells are an environmental hazard,” said U.S. Senator Alex Padilla of California in announcing the new program, “leaking harmful methane into the air, polluting drinking water, and accelerating the climate crisis. This is an issue that affects the health of both rural and urban Californians, particularly those living in Los Angeles and Central Valley communities who are forced to live, work, and play next to unplugged oil and gas wells.”

The state Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) has started to “update, screen, and prioritize its list of orphan wells, as well as identify sites of key interest to stakeholders,” said Jacob Roper with the California Department of Conservation. The average cost has been about $112,000 per well since 2011, but in some cases it can cost much more. CalGEM planned to “diligently go after every opportunity to recover plugging costs,” including bonds posted by the operators, Roper said, and the maximum amount of funding available to the state to properly close orphan wells.

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