Jackson Introduces Legislation to Clean up Beaches by Plugging Old, Leaking Oil Wells

January 25, 2016

SACRAMENTO – Following a year marked by beach closures and health warnings at a Santa Barbara County beach sullied by leaking crude oil, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has just introduced a bill to monitor and cap California’s old, abandoned and leaking oil wells.

Senate Bill 900, the Coast Oil Well Cleanup Act, would require that the California State Lands Commission plug very old "orphaned" oil wells in California waters when the original oil company that operated the well is out of business and cannot be held responsible. It will also require an in-depth study of similarly abandoned and unused oil wells along the California coast. It is estimated that there are more than 200 of these so-called ‘legacy’ wells in California, the majority located along the Summerland and Ellwood beaches in Santa Barbara County and along the Central Coast.

Jackson’s bill was inspired by a recent influx of oil onto Summerland Beach, south of Santa Barbara, which has prompted health warnings and beach closures over the past year. The oil is believed to be coming from the Becker Onshore Well. This well dates back to the 1890s, long before the creation of regulatory agencies and requirements about how to properly cap unused wells, and is believed to have been leaking oil for decades. The company that operated that well is now out of business.

“No one hoping to take a peaceful walk along the beach wants to find themselves or their family members stepping into black, toxic gunk instead, “ said Jackson. “Oil is toxic, it is a carcinogen, and it is unsafe for wildlife. We don’t want it on our beaches, soiling a place of beauty and economic vitality, nor do we want it near our children, our out-of-town visitors, or our fish, birds and marine life. To the extent we can prevent having our beaches soiled by it, we should. This bill will allow us to get a better understanding of our state’s old oil wells, and ensure that we have a plan in place to cap them, as necessary, once and for all."

In addition, the bill would require the removal of coastal hazards such as wood and steel pilings, railroad irons, pipelines, wooden beams and other hazards. It would also require the monitoring and studying of the phenomenon known as natural seepage.

“One of the issues that the Summerland Beach situation has exposed is just how little information we have about natural seepage in our state, “ said Jackson. “When seepage is caused by human error, we clearly need to do something about it. But even when it is not, we need a better grasp of what we can do to prevent and respond to this naturally occurring phenomenon. Our beaches are vital to our quality of life, our hospitality industry and our coastal economy. Our future requires that we keep them clean and protected.” 

The cost to plug one well is estimated at $1 million. Although the State Lands Commission is in the process of inspecting and assessing the Becker well, it is still working to secure funding to cap it. SB 900 will ensure that the funding for this well capping and others is in place.

SB 900 is sponsored by State Controller Betty Yee, a commissioner on the State Lands Commission. The first hearing for the bill has not yet been set.

Jackson represents the 19th Senate District, which includes all of Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County.