Abandoned Oil Wells Vex Southern California

Oil wells run dry, and when they do — as many have in Southern California — the looming question is, what do you do with them? The once-booming California oil business hit its peak in 1985, and since then much of the oil has gradually dried up and the value of land for “surface development” has skyrocketed. There are 70,000 oil and gas wells in the state, and of those about 20,000 are either “shut-ins” that produce only periodically or “orphans” that lack responsible operators. Old wells present a variety of safety and environmental concerns, from soil contamination to oil and methane gas burbling to the surface. In the best cases, developers who buy land from oil companies pay to plug the wells; in the worst cases, old wells are abandoned and the state is stuck with the problem. Oil companies pay some $1 million a year into the state’s delightfully named Orphan Well Plugging Fund, but the money is far from enough to fully tackle the problem.