Texas Senate holds hearing on orphaned wells

Lawmakers were concerned that multiple Texas agencies were punting on an increasingly expensive problem.
Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 6:53 AM CDT
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(KOSA) - A state senate hearing was held in Austin last week to talk about the orphaned wells problems throughout the state, especially in west texas.

It’s the second hearing involving the state legislature within the past month.

But it was a much different tone in the Senate than in the House a few weeks ago, and state lawmakers seemed worried that multiple state agencies seemed to be punting on a big problem.

“We can’t allow a citizen to be abandoned by the state government,” State Sen Brian Birdwell told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Railroad Commission. “Because that’s the real center of gravity I’m dealing with here.

The Texas Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development grilled landowners and government officials on Sept. 14 about the continued problem of well blowouts in the Permian Basin.

“It sounds like there’s an environmental problem at these wellheads,” Birdwell said.

The problem remains: is a well drilled for oil and gas classified as an oil and gas well if no oil or gas were ever found?

Commission Shift Executive Director Virginia Palacios says it’s an expensive question the state legislature may have to answer soon.

“It’s really opening up a whole other area of expense for the state if they decide to take it on.”

But why are state agencies fighting so hard against the responsibility?

“These are particularly expensive sites to clean up because the state has waited so long to deal with them,” Palacios said. “I think there’s also some fear of the unknown... There are potentially hundreds or thousands of unidentified wells across the state. We don’t know what kind of problems these wells are causing.”

West Texas rancher Schuyler Wight knows about the expense and damage firsthand. He’s spent years dealing with the fallout of improperly plugged or abandoned wells on his property.

“The numbers are just staggering,” Wight lamented. “I’ve spent $200,000 of my own money on one of these wells that was flowing to the surface, and it’s still not done right. I still have to go in and drill it out.”

Wight and Palacios believe the RRC is still responsible for the wells. The RRC disagrees.

It’s an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object, with the environment caught in the middle.

“This orphaned well thing is a black eye on the state, it’s a black eye on the industry, and if we don’t get a handle on this, it’s going to drag the state down and we’re going to lose our industry if we don’t get a handle on it,” Wight said.

The RRC said it estimates there are about 8,000 orphaned wells in the State of Texas.

Palacios says it’s likely there are hundreds – if not thousands – more wells that the state doesn’t know about.