A deep, disappointment of an oil well that has sat idle for eight years near the Kern County border is finally getting some attention following its owner's bankruptcy in 2017.
The federal government is preparing to monitor and then plug the 12,000-foot Sevier Well, located a half-mile from the Carrizo Plain National Monument in the prolific Midway-Sunset Oil Field.
At an estimated taxpayer cost of $300,000, the work adds to growing momentum in California to properly plug and abandon orphan oil and gas wells for the sake of the climate, groundwater and endangered species.
The Sevier lingers as a symbol of the dashed hopes oil producers invested in the legendary Monterey Shale, a "source rock" thought a decade ago to contain 15 billion barrels of crude, several times more than North Dakota's famed Bakken Shale.
The well originated with Denver-based Venoco Inc., which set up shop in Bakersfield in 2010 promising to double Kern's oil production. At a ribbon-cutting on Mill Rock Way attended by about two dozen dignitaries and supporters, founder, Chairman and CEO Timothy M. Marquez said the Monterey would be the "biggest thing to hit Kern County in 30 years."
Venoco drilled the Sevier about four years later. It did not strike — and for the most part, neither did most efforts to tap the vaunted Monterey, which at the time was a major focus for at least half a dozen large and medium-size oil producers in Kern.
Geologists and observers said as early as 2012 that the Monterey, a deep formation stretching across much of the southern Central Valley and Southern California, might not be the boon many thought it was. They warned of an abundance of natural faults, low reservoir pressure and a geological profile somewhat resistant to fracking.
About three years after drilling the Sevier, Venoco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the company was liquidated. Some of its assets were picked up by other producers, but not the Sevier.
The plan now is to perform methane testing before and after pouring cement to cover perforations in the well, fill with drilling mud at non-perforated intervals and then cement the surface shut, said Gabe Garcia, Bakersfield field office manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Protecting local groundwater is one goal, he said: The well passes through several water tables, most of them over-salty, others serviceable.
The government wants to cap the well also to keep out endangered species including the California condor, an animal Garcia said demonstrates an unhealthy curiosity about remote infrastructure.
"We don't want to leave that legacy of a leaking well on BLM land," he said, adding the BLM has plugged and abandoned four other wells in Kern, all of them significantly shallower than the Sevier, averaging at about $100,000 per job.
BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning told The Californian Thursday plugging and abandonment work is, generally speaking, a "giant priority" for the Biden administration. Millions of Americans live within a mile of an orphan well, she said. She estimated there are 2.1 million orphan petroleum wells across the country that risk polluting potential drinking water and sometimes leak the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Last year's $1.15 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $4.7 billion for well plugging and abandonments, to be disbursed through grants over five years. Although it's unclear how much will be spent in California, Stone-Manning said, "We expect (in) a place like California that there will be hundreds of millions of dollars going to the ground."
California regulators last month introduced a proposal for prioritizing inspections and repairs of suspected leaking oil and gas wells. The state has dedicated $100 million to the effort, to be supplemented by up to $165 million in federal money.
This year, starting in mid-May, 45 wells have been found to be leaking methane in Bakersfield at indeterminate rates and durations. Repairs were done on all of them, though two were found to be leaking afterward and required additional work.
California's oil industry has criticized the state's focus on orphan wells, saying the money would be better spent on bigger emitters of methane, like dairies and landfills.
Stone-Manning countered that both of those emission sources serve a productive purpose, and that technology is in place to turn their methane into energy. Neither is the case with leaky idle wells.
As the administration tries to get a handle on addressing climate change, she said, "it makes a whole lot of sense to go to places where there's a hole in the ground that is serving no purpose to anyone, and we fix it."
Editor's note: This story has been amended to include the word "million" in the federal estimate of orphan wells across the country.