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OP-ED by John Brooks, president of CFROG: Taxpayers should not have to pick up the tab for fossil-fuel industry cleanup

By John Brooks
None of us would walk out of a restaurant after eating a huge meal without paying and then expect others to clean up our mess. But that is what the state's oil companies are doing by abandoning wells and expecting taxpayers to pick up the cost.
Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) was dismayed to learn that oil companies have given the state only $110 million to clean up onshore oil and gas wells when the estimated tab is closer to $6 billion. 
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, when the time comes for the environmental cleanup, taxpayers will be handed a multibillion-dollar bill.
Close to home, the state has already had to take over responsibility for dozens of wells on both Rincon Island in Ventura County and Platform Holly in Santa Barbara County.
A recent study by the California Council on Science and Technology reveals 35,000 wells sitting idle. Many sit near the low-income neighborhoods in west Ventura. According to FracTracker, Ventura County has 2,022 idle wells as of the end 2019. That is the fourth highest in California.
People living near unplugged oil and gas wells face exposure to hazardous chemicals such as benzene and methane. According to a Los Angeles Times-Public Integrity analysis, more than 2 million Californians live near an unplugged oil or gas well, with Latino, black and low-income people living nearby at a slightly higher rate than the California population as a whole.
California recently beefed up its regulations to make sure more cleanup money is available, but those measures don’t go far enough. CFROG is calling for a study on exactly how many orphan and failing wells there are in Ventura County and what the prospects are for an orderly transition away from fossil fuels.
We believe the price tag for cleanup will increase as the industry continues its decline. California oil production has fallen nearly 60 percent from its peak in 1985.
One of Ventura County's and the state’s largest producers, California Resources Corporation (CRC) is responsible for the third-most idle wells of any company in the state and faces cleanup costs larger than its total market value. If CRC were to go under, other companies would probably buy some of the wells, but many could become the problem of state taxpayers.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors needs to address this dilemma as it updates its General Plan this year to lay out policies for the next 20 years. One step would be to require abandonment of one well for each new well permit that is issued. Other cities have done this.
Taxpayers should not be picking up the tab for the fossil fuel industry.
— John Brooks of Oak View is president of Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas.

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