Discovery of methane leaks in California community is just ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ advocates worry

BAKERSFIELD, CA — Two years ago, Angie Bradford and her husband moved into their newly built home on Morningstar Avenue in a subdivision located in a sprawling, suburban area of East Bakersfield. Bradford worked at a state prison a few miles up the mountain in the community of Tehachapi, and wasn’t far from family in the area. From her living room window, Bradford could see the towering Sierra Nevada.

“I still have my mountains, it was closer to work, so it was just kind of a perfect spot and we loved it,” Bradford, 42, recalled thinking.

But now their home is for sale, having moved out last month after a series of medical issues. At first they blamed their fatigue, headaches and stomachaches on the general air pollution in Bakersfield. That was before they got a knock on their door from a canvasser with an environmental nonprofit with news that methane gas was leaking from nearby oil wells.

At least 30 wells belonging to five different companies were found to have been leaking the gas in recent weeks, according to the Geologic Energy Management Division of the California Department of Conservation, known as CalGEM. The wells closest to the Bradford home belong to Sunray Petroleum, Inc.

The state agency did not disclose data from their readings, but initial reports of the leak said some wells were releasing methane at a concentration of 50,000 parts per million – a level that can be explosive, environmental groups say. In an emailed statement, the agency added that it “has previously engaged or taken enforcement action against” all of the companies with leaky wells.

Though the neighborhood is built over land that is connected to Kern County’s oil industry, Bradford said she was never told about any problems that could arise before she and her husband purchased their home. A state database shows a number of plugged wells that appear to be directly next to or under homes along Morningstar Avenue, and dozens of idle wells – which California defines as “a well that has not been used for two years or more and has not yet been properly plugged and abandoned” – surrounding the homes. A school and a church are also in the vicinity.

The findings have put a spotlight on the legacy of fossil fuel production in the county, and, in the face of climate change-linked disasters like drought, heat waves and wildfires, is spurring groups to push for regulators to curb methane pollution at the source. Environmental groups say there might be more leaking wells that haven’t been discovered, but inspections have been spotty and aging wells in some neighborhoods pose a real danger to people unless they are properly plugged.


An American flag is painted on the fence of the home where the Bradfords lived. A “For Sale” sign now stands out front. Photos by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

How methane leaks can affect health

Methane gas is odorless, colorless and lighter than air. At very high levels, it can quickly displace oxygen in an enclosed setting, causing suffocation and even death. Seth Shonkoff, executive director of PSE Healthy Energy, an energy, science and policy research institute, said the setting in which methane is found matters when it comes to its impact on human health. Indoor exposure to high levels of methane is deadly, while high concentrations of methane outdoors poses a combustibility risk even if there is lesser danger of residents breathing in the gas.

A reading of 50,000 parts per million, which were found at the Kern County well sites, “is an immediate acute hazard to health and safety from an explosion perspective,” Shonkoff said. A click of a lighter or lighting a match would be enough to trigger an explosion near the emission site with a concentration that high, he added.

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In the southernmost tip of the San Joaquin Valley, a housing boom in Bakersfield is greeting new residents seeking more affordable lifestyles in inland California. On a recent day, construction workers installed roofing on new homes in the Morning Star neighborhood, where additional houses are planned on still-empty streets. But signs of the area’s history of oil and gas production are still evident, even if the effects of that legacy aren’t always obvious.

For months, Angie Bradford had been feeling tired, her husband got stomach aches and both of their heads often hurt, she said. They sought answers from doctors, but they couldn’t figure out what was causing their symptoms.

When they finally learned about the leaking methane, they recalled all the times they had gone walking in the evening along dirt paths carved out in the dry, grassy fields adjacent to their and their neighbors’ homes, where exposed oil and gas wells peak up from the ground. At the time, Bradford had thought nothing of it; her father was an oil worker and she knew wells needed to be well-maintained if they were not actively producing oil or gas.

But now she and her husband are worried about what may have been coming from the wells all along.

“That was the first thing we thought of when it came to my health issues,” Bradford said. “If nobody else can explain why I’ve been going through what I’ve been going through, that’s got to be our next route to find out what’s been causing [our illnesses].”

A leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the climate, and contributes to ozone pollution, often known as smog. Kern County is the second-highest ozone-polluted region in California. Environmental groups say other types of pollutants, such as VOCs, can be released with methane and may affect the nervous system, cause breathing problems and some may even cause cancer.

“If I had to hypothesize, methane is probably not the only thing coming out of the ground,” said Joan Casey, a researcher from Columbia University’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences who studies the impact of oil and gas production in places like California and Pennsylvania.

Casey said chemicals like benzene are often found in methane emissions coming from “super emitter” oil and gas sites, dairies and landfills. In the long-term, benzene can reduce red blood cells and affect the immune system. Casey added that people living near polluted sites commonly report headaches and scratchy throats.

“Where there’s methane, I think it’s likely there are other health-damaging air pollutants that we need to be concerned about,” she said. “Just because methane in and of itself is not directly health-harming doesn’t mean methane leaks are not health-harming. It’s a little bit more complicated.”

Fixing leaky wells

Shortly after the first complaints were made in late May, CalGEM sent inspectors to seal the idle wells. In an update provided a month later, the agency said that most companies had made repairs to most of the leaking wells, and methane was no longer found to be leaking at the sites that had been flagged. State inspectors also added pressure meters that could detect how much gas builds up at a given site, and they’ll be checked regularly to release pressure.

It’s unclear how long the wells had been leaking, but officials with CalGEM told the PBS NewsHour that some of the wells were first drilled between 38 to 45 years ago. The recent repairs made by CalGem officials means that they could still return to operation at a later time, the agency said.

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Plugging wells at the end of their production lifetime can cost thousands of dollars, and involves a process of filling the well with concrete and carefully sealing it so that it can never produce petroleum again, according to CalGEM. Environmental advocates say this may be why many wells are not properly shut down.

“The exact costs vary and are highly dependent on the well’s age, condition, and location. One well we’re looking at would cost approximately $195,000, while others can cost half that amount,” the agency said in a statement. The California Council on Science and Technology estimates it could cost up to $9.1 billion to plug all existing – both idle and active – wells in the state.

CalGEM has repeatedly cited companies for failing to correct violations found at abandoned wells in Kern County. As recently as May, CalGEM officials issued an administrative notice to Sunray Petroleum to plug its abandoned wells. The company, CalGEM disclosed in its order, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and the wells and facilities owned by the company appear to have been non-operational since May 2017 “and perhaps many years longer.”

The company initially appealed CalGEM’s order to plug its wells, the agency said in an email, but eventually made the repairs according to an update provided later by the agency. At least one additional company, Citadel Exploration, has not complied with orders to seal its wells, according to the agency, so CalGem filed a court order to seek reimbursement and discontinuation of oil and gas production until the wells are fixed. If companies do not seal or plug their wells, CalGEM will contract out to have the work completed and can pursue reimbursement from the company.

More data and inspections are needed to understand the true extent of the methane leak problem, said Hollin Kretzman, an Oakland-based senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Estimates by researchers and state agencies put the number of oil wells that are no longer in production but not properly sealed or maintained at roughly 37,000 in the state. These are worrisome for environmentalists even across the country, where one estimate puts the total number of wells drilled for oil and gas at 3.5 million, with only 23 percent of those wells currently in production; the rest are left either inactive or potentially unplugged.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Regulators have only started inspecting a very, very small fraction of these idle wells,” Kretzman said. “The enormity of this problem should be sitting pretty heavy with our regulators.”

Citing the risks to people living near abandoned oil wells, along with the destructive, global warming impact of methane emissions, the Biden administration late last year outlined new ways to combat the methane problem, including tackling pollution from aging infrastructure. In the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in November, the Biden administration outlined billions of dollars in investments toward cleaning up old oil and gas sites and plug leaky wells. The Department of Interior announced early this year that more than $1 billion was allocated from the bill so states can create jobs to clean up methane across the country.

During his visit at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has signaled the state’s push away from fossil fuels, also announced a $100 million proposal for methane-detecting satellites that can be used to gain a better understanding of where methane is leaking. He also proposed $200 million to support efforts to plug idle wells. Officials from CalGEM said this would help them hold operators accountable.

Asking for better protections

Oil production in California has been in decline recent years, but Kern County still produces most of the state’s oil and gas and the industry provides millions of property tax dollars for local infrastructure. Hills and bluffs are dotted with wells that churn up and down in search of oil. Where oil is no longer pumping, the wells often linger.


Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with Central California Environmental Justice Network, looks at work that was done on a well near the Morning Star neighborhood. Photo by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

Independent environmental organizations have also conducted their own search for leaks and found fenced-off wells within the city of Bakersfield that register some levels of methane emissions using a camera device that picks up the gas.

Kyle Ferrar, a program coordinator with the organization FracTracker Alliance, which focuses on documenting oil extraction activity and risk to communities, walked around downtown Bakersfield on a recent hot day, pointing a special camera directly into old well sites in parking lots and lawns at business complexes. At one location, he picked up a “small leak,” coming off a valve connected to a well that was obscured from street view by green trees.

An inspector from the Department of Conservation had also shown up to do his own inspection, and was told by Ferrar that there was a small leak. Ferrar had previously checked three wells nearby that did not pick up emissions; one had a recently installed pressure meter.

“This is the type of antique, idled well that needs to be plugged, that they’re finding leaks at,” Ferrar said, standing near a tall, rusted well surrounded by trees. “The operators just choose not to plug them, because it costs a lot of money to plug them … so they just allow them to leak and degrade and corrode in perpetuity.”

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Late last year, Newsom announced all new drilling in the state would have to be done 3,200 feet away from “sensitive receptors” like homes, schools and churches. But the rule, known as a “setback,” would not apply to existing well sites, leading environmental advocates to push for tougher measures to protect the health of residents. At least 2.7 million people live within an operational oil and gas well in the state, according to FracTracker.

Kevin Albertson, deputy chief for the Bakersfield Fire Department, said the city allows homes to be built 10 feet away from wells that are properly abandoned and plugged. If the well is inactive, but not fully plugged, homes must be 100 feet away.

The homes in the Morning Star neighborhood are far enough from the wells, Albertson said, and the fire department had conducted its own testing back in May after CalGEM officials were sent out, and did not pick up methane in its readings near the homes, so the department determined there was no immediate risk to residents.

“Our concern was the neighborhood. ‘Is it safe for our residents, [and] our community to be in their houses?” Albertson said. “And if it wasn’t, we would have made evacuations.”

Albertson said in light of the leaks, the fire department is looking to put together an inspection plan to help state agencies carry out monitoring of wells across the city. He said he hopes that will alleviate the workload for state agencies who have stated they will search for more leaks.


Hundreds of oil wells are seen from Panorama Park in north Bakersfield, California. Photo by Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado

Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network who was among the first to alert residents in the neighborhood of the leaks, said the immediate response by state and local agencies wasn’t typical of past complaints of leaks.

The state held two virtual community meetings to inform residents of the inspections, as well as the ongoing cleanup work, and routinely updated a website with information on the cleanup. Fliers were posted in the neighborhood to alert people for health risks, and air samples were conducted around the homes days after the first complaints.

The increased attention was certainly welcome, Aguirre said. But he recalls that on previous occasions, complaints of similar leaks haven’t garnered the same measures. Aguirre said leaks have happened in smaller, poorer communities in the same county, and the response has been slower.

“We’ve been asking for better protections, and it took a gas leak in a rich neighborhood in a new development for people to listen to us,” Aguirre said. “You know, they didn’t listen when we were in Arvin. They didn’t listen when we were in Shafter. And they didn’t listen when we were in Lamont. So to me, it’s kind of insulting, but at least something’s being done about it now.”