On July 1, a Bakersfield resident submitted a report to Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods (IVAN) with concerns about a potential gas methane link near their home after everyone in the home began experiencing headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and memory problems.
IVAN is a community-based environmental enforcement reporting platform that connects residents of Kern County with the proper agencies that can help solve local environmental problems.
Although the report was sent immediately to the Air District for review, an inspection wasn’t completed until July 13 and it was then that an active oil well and crude oil tank were found to be leaking. Previously, the wells found leaking were all idle or plugged.
“There’s a greater severity around active oil and gas wells because there’s more activity pumping fossil fuels out of the ground,” stated Gustavo Aguirre Jr., the Kern County Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN). “As advocates for environmental justice communities, something that we’ve been calling for for years is oil and gas setbacks for active oil and gas production and operations.”
In the last few weeks, over 40 oil wells had been found gushing methane as close as 100 yards from homes in North Bakersfield. In an article published by the Desert Sun, whistleblowers revealed that Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the state’s top oil regulator, was downplaying the severity of the threats posed by the leaking wells. As of July 19, 38 wells have been repaired.
“It’s a tragedy. Oversight integrity has gone sideways,” the whistleblowers stated when they informed the Desert Sun. It’s unclear how long these oil wells — all of which are located next to homes, schools, and houses of worship, have been spewing methane — calling into question the California Geologic Energy Management Division’s (CalGEM) ability to carry out its stated mission.
An anonymous staffer also admitted to the media that the agency has placed a quota on the amount of wells staff must inspect through “remote witnessing,” a process that allows regulators to avoid in-person inspections of aging oil wells and instead monitor these sites from behind their desks. The Desert Sun reported that a CalGEM employee said these snapshot inspections, which rely on oil operators and third parties to send information from oil sites, are merely an effort to: “drive up numbers on a bar chart and make management look good.”
On July 13, community members in Bakersfield gathered outside the entrance to the CalGEM Inland field office with banners that called out employees for skimping on critical public health and safety monitoring of oilfields and failing to conduct an onsite inspection of thousands of wells over the past two years.
“Our communities are tired of being neglected by our leaders and paying the public health and environmental price for it,” said Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Jasmine Vazin. “We’ve felt the consequences of their inaction as dangerous amounts of methane spew into the air near Bakersfield homes, schools, and a daycare center. But these leaking wells are merely the tip of the iceberg that is California’s idle and orphan well problem. We stand beside the community members demanding Governor Newsom put their public safety first and foremost and address the toxic drilling activities that are going on in our backyards.”
A press release sent out by the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE) pointed out CalGEM’s history of regulatory negligence, referencing the organization’s use of outdated policies and missing paperwork that allowed oil companies to avoid environmental review and their rubber stamping risky projects by using so-called “dummy” folders.
Despite Governor Newsom vowing to reform CalGEM with a staffing shake-up and a new mission focused on public health safety and environmental quality in 2019, little has changed.
“Now yet another scandal shows us that state oil regulators are still not doing their job to protect Californians. An agency name change and new supervisor have not changed a thing. CalGEM needs new leadership from someone with a genuine commitment to environmental justice and robust regulation,” said Shosana Wechsler, a coordinator with Sunflower Alliance.
CRPE’s press release also disclosed that CalGEM wasn’t informing the community about the methane leaks in their community. Instead, local community organizers in environmental justice groups went knocking on neighbors’ doors to warn them about the wells spewing dangerous concentrations of methane and likely other volatile organic compounds since mid-May. They found that neighbors were already suffering from unexplained headaches, fatigue, and stomach aches.
“Pollution from oil and gas operations causes asthma and other breathing problems, may cause cognitive decline and cancer; it affects babies even before they are born,” said Marjaneh Moini, a board member for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We must phase out oil and gas infrastructure to truly protect public health, that is exactly what CalGEM scientific advisory panel has recommended. A 3200-foot buffer between Californians and industrial oil operations is the bare minimum to protect their health, their livelihoods, and their families.”