In California, an idle well is a well that has not been used for two years or more and has not yet been properly "plugged and abandoned" to the satisfaction of the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resource (DOGGR). Plugging and abandonment involves permanently sealing the well with a cement plug to isolate the oil- and gas-bearing geologic formation from water. If a well is not properly plugged and abandoned, it may provide a path for oil, gas, or other contaminants to migrate through the well and into drinking water or to the surface. There are approximately 30,000 wells in California categorized as idle.
Updated regulations to improve maintenance of idle wells became effective on April 1, 2019. The regulations specify far more rigorous testing requirements that better protect public safety and the environment from the potential threats posed by idle wells. The regulations require idle wells to be tested and, if necessary, repaired, or permanently sealed.
If well owners become insolvent or desert their idle wells, responsibility for plugging and abandoning the wells often falls to the State. Since 1977, DOGGR has plugged and abandoned about 1,400 wells at a cost of $29.5 million (the funding is from an assessment on production). To reduce the number of wells the State may become responsible for plugging and abandoning, legislative and regulatory changes have been made to create incentives for operators to manage their idle wells by entering into
Idle Well Management Plans (IWMPs). The fees an operator must pay for each idle well have been increased to reflect the potential costs associated with these wells.
Department of Conservation Idle Well Program Report, January 1, 2018−December 31, 2018
Inactive and deserted oil and gas wells that are not maintained can pose threats to groundwater and public safety. DOGGR has taken multiple steps to mitigate such potential hazards with ground-breaking legislation (Assembly Bill 2729, Williams, 2016) and development of rigorous regulations. There are incentives for operators to file Idle Well Management Plans for either plugging and abandoning idle wells or returning them to production. Also, idle well fees have been increased to help encourage operators to address such wells in their inventories.
The 2018 report details that:
- Wells are now being plugged before they become a problem. 1,234 idle wells, of which 968 were long-term idle wells were plugged and abandoned (permanently sealed and closed).
- DOGGR collected $4.3 million in idle well fees, funds that are available to remediate hazardous well conditions to protect public health and the environment.
- Operators are complying. They filed 76 Idle Well Management Plans, leading to the elimination of 988 long-term idle wells.
Department of Conservation Idle Well Program Report, January 1, 2018−December 31, 2018 (PDF)
DOGGR conducted informational workshops on the implementation of new regulations for Idle Well Testing and Management.
The new requirements took effect April 1, 2019.
Workshop Materials to download and print:
A Preliminary 2018 Calendar Year Inventory of idle wells is available for download. This inventory is missing all wells that became idle in the 2018 calendar year.
DOGGR issued Final Orders to Plug and Abandon more than four dozen idle wells to 14 operators, in response to unpaid idle well fees in 2018. DOGGR sent 12 Notices of Cancellation to operators who failed to comply with the terms of their 2018 Idle Well Management Plans. Future enforcement will expand the focus to compliance with new (2019) idle well regulations in addition to statutory requirements.