Orphans of the Oil Fields: The Cost of Abandoned Wells

Orphans of the Oil Fields: The Cost of Abandoned Wells

Scattered across the oil and gas fields of Texas where fortunes have been won and sometimes lost, there are at least 7,869 abandoned wells. The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) which regulates drilling calls them orphans.

By the RRC’s count, there are an additional 5,445 wells that are inactive and whose operators are delinquent in meeting regulations. Add to all that an unknown number of orphan wells drilled decades ago for which records have been lost, if they ever existed.

“I can assure you that back (then), the environment was not part of the equation,” said Stuart Marcus.

Less obvious and harder to find are wells that no longer produce at all and were abandoned by their operators. An easier way to find them is using the RRC’s Orphan Wells data base.

After failing to get the company to plug some of the old wells, the RRC said it has now barred the company from doing oil and gas operations in Texas. In an “enforcement action” document filed in March of 2000, the RRC alleged that five wells “have not been properly plugged” and that “usable quality water in the area is likely to be contaminated by migrations or discharges of saltwater and other oil and gas wastes…”

In 2001, the Texas Attorney General won a default judgement against the Good Ol’ Boys Oil Company for $216,845 plus court costs and fees, according to a spokesperson.

There have been thousands of wells over the years that have cost the State of Texas millions to clean up and plug. Since 1984, Texas has spent over $247 million “using the Oil Field Cleanup Fund and other state and federal sources of funds” according to an RRC report. (Update: Railroad Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye emailed StateImpact Texas to say that “the plugging of orphan wells and cleanup of abandoned sites is primarily funded by fees collected from the industry and deposited in the Oil & Gas Regulation Cleanup Fund, formerly the Oilfield Cleanup Fund. Texas taxpayers do not pay into this fund.”)

Now, as oil and gas drilling booms in the very same regions of North and South Texas where state records also show the highest number of orphaned wells, it begs the questions: will history repeat itself, will there be a new generation of orphan wells when this current boom subsides?

By Dave Fehling, State Impact