Oped by Monica Embrey

September 29, 2020

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Today, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to enact a just transition taskforce specifically focused on plugging and remediating non-productive oil wells in unincorporated parts of the County. This historic vote advances a just transition as a critical component to addressing the intersecting issues of climate justice, economic justice, and public health. 

Idle oil and gas wells are wells that have not produced oil in over two years and have not yet been properly plugged and cleaned up. Idle wells pose a host of risks to our community. For example, harmful fluids and dangerous gases may migrate to the surface in idle wells, causing water and soil contamination and deadly explosions. The longer wells remain idle, the more dangerous they become. Idle wells can also cause significant climate pollution. They can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide in driving climate change. On top of these significant environmental and public health risks, idle wells pose a huge financial risk to taxpayers and local governments. Without strong regulatory action, oil and gas companies may succeed in avoiding their clean-up obligations while handing taxpayers the bill for plugging, abandonment, and remediation of wells and oil field sites.

According to CalGEM’s datathere are 1,046 active wells, 637 idle wells, and 2,731 abandoned wells across the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. Many of these wells may have been improperly abandoned or have been left idle for long periods of time. There are 35,000 idle wells in the State of California, and the number of idle wells is increasing as production drops due to historically low oil prices. 

Today’s motion to address these wells was co-sponsored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Janice Hahn. The motion calls on Los Angeles County agencies to work with a taskforce that will include direct input from environmental groups and labor unions, including the Sierra Club, Los Angeles and Orange County Building Trades, and United Steelworkers Local 675. Now, the taskforce and county agencies have 120 days to come up with a plan to develop incentives, enforcement protocols, funding strategies, and legislative advocacy to clean up old fossil fuel infrastructure in LA County.

We need a highly skilled and trained workforce to clean up old fossil fuel infrastructure in a manner that promotes public health and safety and combats climate change.

Working with labor unions to address California’s idle well problem is a critical part of a just transition to clean, renewable energy that protects the environment, communities, and workers. Unions, especially those that already supply the workforce for currently operating oil fields, can provide both the training and the personnel with relevant experience. 

Oil field remediation with the creation of family-sustaining, “high road” jobs that provide both wages and benefits, safe working conditions, and training and advancement opportunities is a key part of a truly just transition. To achieve this, Los Angeles County should mandate strong labor standards for jobs in oil well remediation and prioritize hiring and training local workers impacted by job losses in the industry and from communities who have been disproportionately affected by the  health and environmental impacts of oil production.

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