Legislation targets orphaned well in Summerland Oil Field and elsewhere
The California State Lands Commission is in the process of capping one of the nearly 200 orphaned oil and gas wells it deems at risk of leaking into the ocean off of Santa Barbara County.
Orphaned wells are inactive drilling sites for which an owner is not on record.
The well, Duquesne 910, is located at the west end of Summerland Beach — buried under sand and shallow water.
Duquesne isn’t the first well the State Lands Commission has unearthed and sealed this year. In late July, it sealed Olsson 805, another legacy well located in the Summerland Oil Field.
The commission budgeted $12 million between 2018 and 2023 to cap six Summerland wells. Offshore wells are exponentially more costly, but the highly involved capping process isn’t cheap.
Legislators from Santa Barbara County, alongside nonprofit Heal the Ocean, pursued state laws that would protect residents from the hydrocarbons beneath their feet.
Heal the Ocean’s president/executive director Hillary Hauser refers to former state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, as a good friend of the organization. The two are pictured in a recent Heal the Ocean newsletter with their thumbs up as an offshore well is capped.
Perhaps it is Ms. Jackson’s strong initiative Ms. Hauser holds dear — or the environmental legislation she championed, including Senate Bill 44. The bill, passed in 2017, provides the State Lands Commission with $2 million a year until fiscal year 2027-2028 to remove and remediate gas and oil wells along California’s coast. The bill places an emphasis on Summerland.
Workers deserted wells in the Summerland Oil Field in the early 1900s. Without oversight, they sealed the pipes with rocks and rags in some cases.
“The cost of capping these wells is not cheap because there are no parties left. These are orphaned wells that are improperly capped — most are many, many years old,” Ms. Jackson told the News-Press. “The state is really forced to pick up the tab because there is no one else to be held financially responsible.”
The cost of SB 44 was an obstacle, she said. The bill was originally introduced in 2016 before being vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The bill also faced claims from the oil industry about the ocean’s natural seepages. Ms. Hauser remembers legislators questioning whether oil seepages could be traced to the well in areas dense with legacy wells like Summerland.
Heal the Ocean, with funding from its advisory board member Nora McNeely Hurley, hired Planck Aerosystems to produce a heat map of the oil field. Then it became clear the State Lands Commission could prioritize which wells to remediate, Ms. Hauser said.
Ms. Jackson said Heal the Ocean was “critical in proving the danger of these wells.”
“They’re dangerous, and they let off toxic fumes. Oil is not only a dirty business, it’s a toxic business,” she said. “We don’t want these oil spills on our shores.”
Heal the Ocean field adviser Harry Rabin said the presence of oil is clear in the county. He can see the oil as he walks near the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Preserve.
He has been working with the State Lands Commission to identify oil leaks through a drone and automate the discovery process. He monitors 40 wellheads in Summerland and eight off Rincon Island.
“It’s a long arduous process to pinpoint where the leak is coming from which is why we are automating these drone flights,” Mr. Rabin said.
He wants to take his idea outside of Santa Barbara County.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that there were more than 3.2 million orphaned onshore oil and gas wells in the U.S. in 2018 — 2.1 million of those unplugged.
When Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams was an assemblymember, he sponsored a bill in 2016 that charges companies when they keep wells idle and uncapped for long periods.
“The important thing is not to let thousands of wells idle until they go out of business and there’s no one around to properly cap them,” he said.
He said state Sen. Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, has advanced this legislation since. Her bill, which fines companies, SB 47, was signed in September.
“It was really important to highlight this issue, not just in Summerland but everywhere,” Supervisor Williams said. “There are thousands of orphaned wells across the state.”
Both Mr. Williams’ 2016 legislation and SB 47 are intended to protect taxpayers from the expenses of capping wells like Duquesne.
“California is leading the way and yet at the same time, California was the first to have the offshore oil rigs,” Mr. Rabin said. “They left us a mess, so it’s good we want to be the first state that wants to clean this up.”
Summerland Beach is still open to the public, though parking is limited. The lot at Lookout Park is being used to stage the construction equipment. Work is estimated to continue through Tuesday.