The California Department of Conservation has completed a nine-year effort to remediate and permanently seal 80 oil wells left abandoned by Greka Energy Co., State Assemblymember Pedro Nava announced yesterday.

The abandoned wells, commonly referred to as orphan wells, were all formerly owned by Greka but have since been abandoned. While it is the responsibility of the owner to seal oil wells once they are no longer actively producing oil, Greka had failed to do so, creating a potential hazard to the public. All 80 orphan wells were located in northern Santa Barbara County.

“Today is a great day for Santa Barbara County,” Nava, who chairs the Joint Committee on Emergency Services and Homeland Security, said in a press release. “These old wells were threats to public safety and the environment, but thanks to the hard work of the California Department of Conservation they no longer pose a threat.

“This is an example of why we must remain vigilant against operators such as Greka,” Nava continued. “It is very unfortunate that wells can be abandoned and the state is left to clean up the mess.”

In response to Greka’s repeated oil spills, Nava introduced – and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger subsequently signed – a new law, titled Assembly Bill 1960, that imposes stricter regulations and harsher penalties on companies that oversee oil spills. Signed in October, the law is just now starting to be implemented.

Along with imposing stricter oversight on operators with histories of negligence, such as Greka, the law increases the maximum civil penalty for violations of oil and gas regulations from $5,000 to $25,000.

Funding for the remediation and sealing of the abandoned Greka wells came from the Orphan Well Plugging Fund, which is part of an assessment on the petroleum industry. The Dept. of Conservation is authorized to allocate up to $2 million per year to plug and seal orphan wells around the state. Currently there are approximately 330 wells waiting to be plugged.

Since 1977, when the program first began, 1,150 wells have been plugged at an estimated cost of $19 million.

“We update and re-prioritize the list frequently,” Hal Bopp, the State Oil and Gas Supervisor, said in a press release. “Sites that are close to residential or environmentally sensitive areas are our primary concerns. … We’re pleased to have completed the work at this sensitive site [in northern Santa Barbara County.]”