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Climate and Environment

California To Get Federal Funds To Seal Thousands Of Orphaned Oil Wells Leaking Toxins

A black oil pumpjack in the center of the image with green tree canopy in the foreground and a neighbhorhood in the background.
An oil pumpjack near homes in the Inglewood Oil Field.
(Gary Kavanagh
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There are more than 5,000 "orphaned" oil wells in California — oil wells which have been abandoned by their owners, without paying to have them plugged.

Many wells have been idle for over a decade, but are still leaking toxins and polluting nearby air, soil and drinking water with cancer-causing contaminants.

"And the harms don't just stop there," California Senator Alex Padilla said. "Orphaned wells also emit methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that is serving to accelerate the climate crisis around the world that we're working so hard to try to reverse."

California is now getting federal funds to help plug those wells, starting with $25 million due to come this summer. The state could get up to $165 million more. The money will be used to fill the wells with concrete to prevent contaminants from leaching out.

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In Los Angeles County, more than half a million people live within a half-mile of a well, Padilla pointed out.

"One of the highest rates and concentrations in the nation," he said.

A recently-released study published in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology found that twice as many oil wells are located in historically redlined neighborhoods — where immigrants and people of color were made to live due to the systematic denial of loans and credit. 12,000 wells in 33 U.S. cities were examined using data from 1898 to 2021. In Los Angeles, the problem was by far the most egregious, with 6,600 wells built within at least 100 meters of at least one redlined neighborhood.

California's Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot says while the state has been addressing the issue — 70 wells were capped between 2016 and 2017 — the problem has needed to be attacked on a much greater scale.

He adds the money will help them prioritize which wells to permanently cap, based on which ones are causing the most community harm.

"Thanks to this federal funding, we're going to take a quantum leap in the amount of orphan wells that we're able to safely and permanently seal, and that's a really big deal for communities and for our environment," Crowfoot said.

In January, the L.A. City Council voted to ban new oil and gas drilling, but has a greater goal of completely phasing out existing oil and gas production in city limits over the next 20 years.

What questions do you have about Southern California?