Take the money and plug. Orphan wells mess with Texas.Houston ChronicleMedia Coverage

Texas thumbing its nose at federal aid for orphan wells is tribal politics at its worst.

By the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board
January 12, 2023

You wouldn’t expect to find a 60-acre saltwater lake in the middle of a parched stretch of land in West Texas.

Then again, referring to this particular body of water – known as Lake Boehmer – as merely a “lake” is deceptive. You wouldn’t want to fish or swim in this lake, and taking a sip from it would almost certainly send you to the hospital. That’s because Lake Boehmer is basically an active industrial accident, the result of a toxic fountain gushing 200 gallons per minute of briny, salty, contaminated water out of a long-abandoned well head.

Experts estimate plugging Lake Boehmer alone would cost between $50 million-$100 million. That’s not exactly chump change for the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency responsible for regulating oil wells. In 2021 alone, the commission spent roughly $49 million to plug 1,279 oil wells.

With nearly 150,000 inactive wells across the state, commissioners have their work cut out for them. These wells are, cumulatively, the 10th largest source of annual methane emissions in the nation and “ticking time bombs” threatening our groundwater supply. Even if we assume the commission is doing everything in its power to plug these wells – spoiler alert: it isn’t – hundreds of new wells are orphaned every year. Since 2006, the commission has removed nearly 28,000 orphan wells from its inventory, yet oil and gas companies have orphaned an additional 22,592.

But if you’d assume the Railroad Commission would welcome any and all help to to get a handle on this Sisyphean task, you’d be wrong.  

Congress last year approved $4.6 billion to plug old wells, with Texas set to receive up to $344 million, enough to plug almost 7,400 wells. Good news for many states, but not for Texas, where federal help can be seen as trampling on our independence. 

Just ask Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.

During a speech at the annual meeting of the Texas Pipeline Association in Houston last week, Craddick told more than 100 attendees that the federal regulatory climate was “hostile to energy,” and that the commission would not accept the federal funding to plug abandoned oil wells until it knows if there’s a catch.  

“We’re going to wait and see what their rules are before we decide if we have the opportunity to accept those dollars,” Craddick said. 

It’s possible Craddick was simply reading the room and leaning on a familiar refrain among Texas Republicans: that the federal government should keep its nose out of the state’s business and let the free market run wild. That message certainly plays well among an audience of energy executives. Heck, it might just prompt them to shower her with even more money from oil and gas donors.

Yet thumbing her nose at free money to clean up a problem partly of the commission’s making is beyond foolish. Presumably, Craddick was elected to do something more than fatten her campaign coffers and look after her political prospects. She’s supposed to be acting as a steward of our natural resources.

Had the commission not provided tax exemptions and incentives for operators to drill wells they are likely to orphan; had it not voted in 2020 to waive a rule requiring companies to plug a well if it’s been abandoned with no production for a year; had it not allowed operators to sell abandoned wells and escape decommissioning liability, we might not be relying on our tax dollars to take care of this problem for the private sector. 

It’s become a bizarre rite of passage for our state’s leaders to reject the federal government’s help to solve intractable problems, only to take the money when it’s politically convenient. Gov. Greg Abbott has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, turning his back on roughly $100 billion in federal money over the past decade that would give health insurance to as many as 1.2 million Texans. Yet he will happily repurpose $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid for a program to arrest migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

What makes Craddick’s statement even more disingenuous is that she likely knows as well as anyone that there are few strings attached to the federal oil well cleanup funds. The commission has already received $25 million in initial grant money out of more than $82 million in the first tranche of funding. The well plugging and remediation standards are largely left to individual states. In fact, Wayne Christian, the Railroad Commission chairman, is also the vice chair of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state government organization which reportedly played an outsized role in providing “technical assistance and consulting” in drafting the Congressional infrastructure bill that includes the well plugging funds. 

In a perfect world, Texas wouldn’t be overly reliant on federal money to clean up our mess. The commission should require operators to cover the full cost of decommissioning wells it no longer uses. Currently, the bond amounts the commission requires oil producers to put up to cover the cost of plugging wells only pay for about 16 percent of the cost, with state taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab.

But as long as the federal government is willing to help us solve this problem, let’s not let tribal politics get in the way. Take the money and start fixing the problem before another abandoned well becomes an environmental catastrophe. 

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