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Texas fund helps plug abandoned oil wells

Texas is home to more than 355,000 oil and natural gas wells. More then 15,000 of those are inactive wells--some of them sitting idle for more than 20 years--classified as "orphaned" by the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) and subject to plugging by the RRC using funds from the state's Oil Field Cleanup Fund (OFCF).

The 1991 Texas Legislature created the $10 million fund to help plug wells that have not been plugged after 12 months of inactivity, and to clean up other orphaned oil field sites to prevent the spread of pollution. The 2001 Legislature increased the fund's balance to $20 million. The fund is financed primarily through fees paid by oil and gas companies and the industry as a whole, as well as other sources like enforcement penalties and reimbursements.

Find 'em, plug 'em
The RRC has plugged more than 21,000 orphaned Texas wells since fiscal 1984, but after the OFCF's creation, the pace of plugging picked up. The state plugged more than 4,000 wells between 1984 and 1992. But from 1992 to 2003 the state plugged nearly 17,000 wells and cleaned up, assessed or investigated more than 2,400 sites according to the RRC's annual Oil Field Cleanup Program report.

Orphaned wells, however, don't just jump out and declare themselves orphaned, said Joe Mayorga, assistant director of RRC's oil and gas division. Each site is unique in what is left behind after the drilling, what must be done to shut it down and how long that takes.

"The way we usually find them is we'll have a wellhead connected to the surface casing," Mayorga said. "From start to finish, actual plugging operations can be a matter of days to a couple of weeks. As of January 2005, paperwork and all, it's averaging about 71 days."

Plugging wells is not a problem unique to Texas, but other states' programs aren't as extensive as Texas', which operates year-round, Mayorga said.

About 230 RRC employees in various district offices in Texas work in oil field cleanup and between 30 and 35 actually go out and witness various plugging operations.

"The Railroad Commission witnesses 100 percent of well-plugging operations," Mayorga said. "We need to make sure that the well is plugged properly and when we get an invoice, we want to know we're getting an invoice for work that is actually being done."

Troubles with fluids
The RRC uses between $6 million and $8 million annually to clean up 1,300 to 1,600 orphaned wells, but it's hard to put a finger on how many can be cleaned in a given year or what it will cost due to the ever-changing status of wells on the list, Mayorga said.

"A lot of it will depend on the costs incurred by the RRC to plug a well," he said. "[Costs] vary from year to year and some wells are more expensive to plug than others."

Wells are different from district to district to begin with, Mayorga said, and there are only so many contractors that can do the job. Most of the contractors also do other types of work.

"They also bring other wells back into production and [that] is generally more profitable to those companies than plugging," he said. "We have to compete with the [production side] to get those plugging operations done."

Wells are placed on and off of the list as they change from producing to non-producing status and also as they change hands in ownership, according to Kelly Mcbeth, chief of staff for Rep. Buddy West, chairman of the Oilfield Cleanup Fund Advisory Committee.

"The list of abandoned wells is very fluid and can and does change a lot," she said.

In fiscal 2003, for example, more than 14,000 wells were removed from the orphaned list at the beginning of the year, but nearly 13,000 new ones were placed on the list throughout the year, according to the RRC's fiscal 2003 annual report.

In the end, however, the more wells cleaned and capped the better, Mcbeth said, adding that those in West's camp--West is also chair of Texas' Energy Resources committee--want more wells plugged, but they also understand the unique well-to-well nature of the business.

"We'd like to see more wells cleaned up per year," Mcbeth said. "We think as many as 2,000 per year [can be cleaned], but it's hard to say on a well-to-well basis."

The real threat
The problem with open wells dotting the Texas landscape is not really a case of someone falling into a well or dropping hazardous chemicals into them; it's what can come out of them at the surface, Mayorga said.

"It's more of a pollution threat than it is an injury threat," he said. "Typically it's not things running into the well bore; it's [the] reverse. Things coming out of the well and getting into surface waters are what you're concerned with."

Oil and gas--the products a well was drilled to extract in the first place--can continue to come to the surface even after the well has stopped being commercially productive. Saltwater can make its way to the surface and, once there, anything that comes out of the well can seep into and contaminate ground water stores.

A mixture of cement and mud is used to plug a well, Mayorga said.

"Usually, mud is poured in to the depths needed, then [we] pour a cement plug," he said. "That allows the cement to suspend there and harden, which will prevent any kind of liquid from moving through the well."

There are 12 oil and gas districts in Texas and the San Antonio district contains more orphaned wells than any other, according to the RRC.

Caldwell County lies within that district and with 736 orphaned wells--according to RRC statistics from January 2005--has the third-highest total of any county in Texas. Areas in Caldwell County at one time were prolific oil producing regions, but not anymore, according to Caldwell County Judge H.T. Wright.

"I don't disagree with that [number of wells] at all," he said. "There are still wells in the county that produce, but there are an awful lot that don't."

Keeping track of orphaned wells and the hazards they can pose to groundwater is tough to do, Wright said, especially with the limited power counties have over land to begin with.

"Even if [wells] were brought to our attention, about the only thing we could do about it is fuss to the Railroad Commission about plugging them up," he said. "Most prudent landowners I'm sure would do their own fussing to the Railroad Commission to get it taken care of, but there's not much we can do."

There was a time, Wright said, when companies took care of wells on their own for the most part, pouring concrete to plug them once their pumping life had passed. But that time seems to have passed.

"Over time, the economics got to be where it wasn't feasible to do that anymore," he said. "So folks would just walk off and leave the wells."

In the end, it's up to the state to find and plug those orphaned holes.

"The total number of orphaned wells has been going down," Mayorga said. "But our target is the total population of orphaned wells."

Clint Shields