As investment moves away from oil and gas companies in favor of businesses with a better return, the state of Texas faces a significant economic threat. Combined with declining demand from depressed commodity prices, shifting consumer preferences and the global COVID-19 pandemic, the state faces a surge in oil and gas company bankruptcies and declining revenue from fees it collects from the industry. Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission of Texas—the state’s oil and gas regulator—has been asleep at the switch.
Insolvent or financially distressed operators exacerbate the potential economic risks, public health dangers and environmental hazards posed by unplugged and abandoned oil and natural gas wells. As the wellbore deteriorates, it can leach oil, gas, and residual drilling fluids into groundwater supplies. Unplugged and abandoned wells also can release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and open pits for collecting wastewater or other byproducts of the drilling process can leak and pose threats to groundwater as well.
The Railroad Commission has had opportunities to confront the transition occurring in the energy business and better prepare for the declining revenue and rising environmental risks it poses. So far, however, it has failed to do so.