February 2, 2009

Contact: Don Drysdale

SANTA BARBARA – The last remaining wells in the deserted Capitan oil field have been permanently sealed, completing a nine-year effort to protect the environment and public safety. The Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has remediated 80 abandoned wells in the Santa Barbara field since 2000; the final 11 were completed between November 2008 and January 2009.

“This once-productive facility had been neglected for far too long, and we’re happy to say that it’s no longer an eyesore and a potential environmental hazard,” said DOC Director Bridgett Luther. “This project is a fine example of how we achieve one of our chief goals, good stewardship of California’s environment.”

DOGGR first issued a formal order to Saba Petroleum, Inc., to plug and abandon the long-term idle Capitan oil field wells in 1999.  When the company failed to complete the order, DOGGR began working in 2000 to secure a clean-up contract and over the last nine years, the field was closed in stages.

The Capitan field, located about midway between Goleta and Gaviota off Highway 101, was discovered in 1929. Its peak oil production was in 1943 (nearly 1.2 million barrels) and its peak gas production in 1958 (more than 539 million cubic feet). Produced by, among others, Shell Western Exploration & Production Inc., and Saba, the field has been inactive since oil production dwindled to zero in April 1989. Most of the field’s 80 wells were between 1,300 and 4,000 feet in depth; the deepest was 10,216 feet.

In the plugging process, a portable rig is positioned over the well. Cement and special drilling mud (of a specific weight and viscosity) are alternately pumped into the well casing through tubing. When the cement hardens, it stops oil, gas and water from entering the well and migrating to the surface. The mud acts as a secondary barrier.

“We’re very pleased with this last stage of the project,” said Patricia Abel, District Deputy in charge of DOGGR’s Santa Maria office. “We had to re-plug one well that had some minor gas leakage, cut and pull casing in a couple of wells, and had fishing operations in another well; that is, we had to fish out some junk tubing that had gotten stuck in the well shaft before plugging it. Otherwise, it was a fairly straightforward project.”

Funding for the project came from the Orphan Well Plugging Fund, part of an assessment on the petroleum industry. DOGGR is authorized to spend up to $2 million per year to plug and abandon orphan wells. Contractors are hired to do the work and DOGGR supervises the operations to make sure the public is protected. Since 1977, DOGGR has plugged more than 1,150 orphan wells at a cost of $19 million. Currently, there are about 330 wells on the waiting list to be plugged; 10 have been plugged and abandoned this year.

 “We update and re-prioritize the list frequently,” State Oil and Gas Supervisor Hal Bopp said. “Sites that leak or are close to residential or environmentally sensitive areas are our primary concerns. Although there hadn’t been any significant problems at the Capitan field, we wanted to be proactive about shutting it down for a few reasons. First, it’s in a high-traffic, high-visibility area. Second, much of the field is on steep terrain, and the potential for wildfires is a concern. Third, the field is very close to the ocean, so the potential for leakage was also a concern. We’re pleased to have completed the work at this sensitive site.”