The quest to cap orphaned oil wells off California’s coast

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On a recent summer day, the air at Summerland Beach was thick with the smell of oil. A large oil sheen floated on the water and lapped up on the shore. Local resident Lee Heller said it was as bad as she’s seen in her 13 years of living here.

“There were a couple dolphins swimming through here a minute ago,” she said. “I’ve seen dead birds on the beach. It’s very disturbing.”

The culprit is most likely the Becker Well, an abandoned oil well sitting in shallow waters just off the beach. It’s uncapped, and many say that’s why oil is leaking. But a new legislative effort may put an end to this sort of leak.

Dog walkers head down the path to Summerland Beach, where the smell of oil wafts up from the shore. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In the 1890s, the first offshore oil wells in America were drilled in Summerland. Many structures are now buried under the sand.

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Oil production along Summerland Beach in the early 1900s (Santa Barbara Historical Museum) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

By 1940, oil production along Summerland Beach lost economic viability, and the companies left. According to Santa Barbara State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, that’s when the problems began.

“[The wells] are supposed to be properly capped so there’s no leakage, but what we’ve discovered is that a lot of these wells were abandoned by companies that are now out of business.”

That means if the wells leak oil, there’s no one responsible for capping them.

Jackson thinks the state should do it. So does State Assemblyman Das Williams, who’s asking Governor Jerry Brown for $900,000 to cap one specific well in Summerland – the Becker Well.

“It’s a health risk, and of course it spoils one of our most beautiful beaches on the central coast,” said Williams.

While this may please local residents like Heller, the Becker Well is just one of 220 abandoned wells along California’s coast, mainly in Santa Barbara and Huntington Beach. Jackson wrote a bill to study how much oil is coming out of these remaining wells, and cap the biggest leakers. Senate Bill 900 passed the state senate and assembly, and is now waiting for a signature from Governor Brown.

There are about 200 Legacy wells, or abandoned oil wells which are now the responsibility of the state, along Summerland Beach. (California State Lands Commission) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But this is where things get complicated. Even if all those wells were capped, some beaches might still have oil. That’s because of natural oil seepages that occur on the ocean’s floor.

Which begs the question: How much is natural and how much comes from old wells? 

“Every time we talk about cleaning oil wells, people say there’s natural seepage, but there’s never been a study done,” said Jackson. 

That brings in the second component of her bill. She’s calling for the state to fund a comprehensive study of these seepages in the region.

“Seepage has occurred for at least 100,000 years, probably much longer. But, that’s not to say that there aren’t impacts that are happening all the time that we just accept as nature,” said David Valentine, a professor who studies oil in coastal waters at UC Santa Barbara. “I think it’s important that we do a thorough assessment of what is spilling and take care of the things that are really troublesome.”

Sorting out what’s troublesome versus what’s natural is what Senator Jackson’s bill intends to do. With any luck, coastal residents may finally learn, once and for all, where all the oil in the Santa Barbara Channel is coming from.