Plugging Pump Jacks: Dealing with abandoned oil wells across East TexasNBC TylerMedia Coverage

BY: Nolan Hoffman
05/18/2023 09:54 PM CDT

KETK Fox (NBC) Tyler | Throughout East Texas, abandoned oil wells could pose issues for surrounding communities. It’s not just in the Piney Woods — this is an issue the federal government is trying to combat.

“There are 150,000 inactive, unplugged wells in the state of Texas,” said Virginia Palacios, Executive Director at Commission Shift.

The EPA estimates there are more than two million across the country.

“This is East Texas. This is Pennsylvania. This is Ohio. This is West Virginia. This is California. This is Gulf of Mexico,” said Oil Drilling Consultant William Burch.

Back in 2021, The White House announced more than $1 billion for states to plug abandoned oil wells that they say could be harmful to the environment.

“It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes, and we can get it done,” said President Joe Biden during a speech talking about the administration’s plan.

The State of Texas received $343 million, which was the most of any state, to help clean up the problem.

Palacios said leaving oil wells unplugged can cause problems for the surrounding environment.

“We’ve seen well blowouts both in South Texas and West Texas,” Palacios said. “There’s a lot of leaking wells that we see throughout the state.”

Environmentalists say abandoned, unsealed oil wells can leak harmful chemicals into the air, land and drinking water causing problems for landowners and wildlife.

“There have been some cases where we’re aware of pretty widespread groundwater contamination from unplugged wells that started leaking and ranchers have had to sell all of the cattle on their property,” Palacios added.

So why doesn’t the State of Texas just go ahead and plug all of the wells? Palacios said the number just keeps climbing.

“The Railroad Commission lets operators get plugging extensions over and over again,” she added.

She said that it’s caused around 17,000 wells to go inactive for more than 20 years.

Kevin Baugh plugs oil wells for a living along with his wife, Christina Baugh, and they own Princess Three Operating in Henderson.

“You just kind of go off the depths that the State of Texas gives you,” said Baugh. “You do what they tell you to do to be able to have it plugged and plugged correctly.”

With state-funded plugging, he said they’re making sure it’s done correctly.

“{The state} actually has a representative out there with you every day to make sure you’re doing it right,” Baugh said.

According to the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, currently, there are 8,500 abandoned orphan wells in the state.

The communications director for the RRC, R. J. DeSilva, says Texas takes this problem seriously.

“We plug the high-risk wells first to make sure there’s no pollution and underground freshwater sources and then the public safety and the environment are protected,” said DeSilva.

Each abandoned well can cost at least $20,000 to plug and of the more than $300 million announced from the federal government, so far, Texas has only received $25 million.

DeSilva added it’s already made a positive impact on the cleanup efforts.

“We started plugging orphan wells almost immediately,” he said. “In fact, back in October, we became the first state to use those funds to plug orphan wells. So, we’re well on our way.”

Palacios said the money from the Biden administration won’t solve the problem for good.

“I think it’ll help to speed the pace of plugging in the short term but it’s not going to have an impact in the long term,” she added.

Solutions are up to the state legislature.

“In order to prevent wells from being unplugged forever, we have to change state policy,” she said. “The money coming from the federal government is not going to change state policy,” Palacios.

The RRC says they’re doing a lot more.

“We exceed these goals consistently,“ said DeSilva. “In fact, for the last six years, we’ve gone beyond in terms of what the legislature has said in terms of the orphan well plugging and so that is a test to the hard work that the agency does.”

They are working to make sure these lost oil wells that once helped power East Texas, don’t help destroy it.

According to the RRC, so far this year, wells plugged through the State Managed Plugging program (utilizing oil and gas industry revenue) is at 678. Orphaned wells plugged using federal funds is at 558 which brings the total number of wells plugged at 1,236.

The state of Texas is the number one oil and gas producing state in the nation.


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