Abandoned Texas oil wells polluting air, water and vegetationNews 4 San AntonioMedia Coverage

By Emily Baucum
February 9, 2023

SAN ANTONIO – Texas has received millions of dollars from the federal government to plug abandoned oil and gas wells that are at risk of polluting air, water and vegetation.

The Trouble Shooters show you the progress made so far and why some worry it’s just a drop in the bucket.

There are about 290,000 wells in Texas. More than half – roughly 149,000 – are not active. And an estimated 7,960 of those inactive wells are abandoned.

The Environmental Risk

In 2021, the Trouble Shooters showed you video of methane spewing into the air from an abandoned well on ranchland Molly Rooke inherited.

“The well had blown out the side,” Rooke told us. “I knew that these old wells were very rusty and fragile and that they were ticking time bombs.”

The land’s 25 wells were later plugged by the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Its chairman Christi Craddick recently updated the Trouble Shooters on the Commission’s plugging work.

“We plug, give or take, 1,000 wells a year right now,” Chairman Craddick says.

Why Wells Are Abandoned

Chairman Craddick says most oil and gas operators do the right thing and plug wells that are no longer useful. But sometimes the state is forced to clean up the mess, partly on the taxpayer’s dime.

“You have an operator who loses their lease, runs out of money or just walks away,” Chairman Craddick explains.

The plugging work costs nearly $30 million last year, a combination of sate funds, industry fees and any money the Attorney General’s office can recoup after investigating delinquent operators.

“At some point, the Attorney General, we send the case back over to them and they try to go collect dollars if we can find those people,” Chairman Craddick says.

New Federal Help

Now, the federal Inflation Reduction Act is helping with an extra $25 million which will take care of about 800 abandoned wells.

“We actually were the first state to plug a well with federal dollars,” Chairman Craddick says.

The Railroad Commission posted an interactive map showing all the wells it’s plugging with federal money. In our area, we found several north of Luling. The Trouble Shooters tried to contact the listed owner, but our phone calls were not returned.

“Those operators are bankrupt. There’s probably not going to be anyone at the other end of the line because that company doesn’t exist anymore,” says Virginia Palacios from Commission Shift.

Finding Potential Solutions

Palacios explains Commission Shift is working to reform oil and gas oversight in Texas.

“The federal funds are really just a drop in the bucket compared to this massive problem,” Palacios says. “Private companies are making profits by delaying their plugging operations. And they’re pushing the cost of that onto the public.”

Her group blames state policy, pointing to 17,000 wells across Texas that have been inactive for more than 20 years. The issue’s been tied up in court for several years.

So far, now bills have been filed this legislative session to address abandoned wells. Palacios would like to see operators pay more fees to pay for plugging down the line, and for the Railroad Commission to publish a map of every inactive well in Texas.

“The public deserve to know what risks are in their own backyard and they deserve to know whether they’re living next to a potentially dangerous unplugged well,” Palacios says.

Hope For The Future

Chairman Craddick noted the Railroad Commission plugs an average of 1,000 wells a year. But last year, 944 more wells were abandoned because the pandemic caused so much turmoil in the energy industry.

The contrast between those two numbers shows just how hard it is to keep up with plugging.

The Railroad Commission hopes to apply for more federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to really put a dent in the problem.

“Just over $300 million that this state will be eligible to apply for,” Chairman Craddick says. “We’ve been waiting and we’ve been waiting. The Department of Interior is supposed to put rules and guidelines in place about how to access that and what it looks like.”

She says she’s hopeful that guidance will come soon so the Commission can evaluate if the program is right for Texas.

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