Antelope Valley Press (Sunday)
Forgotten oil and gas wells linger, leaking toxic chemicals
CRANE, Texas (AP) — Rusted pipes litter the sandy fields of Ashley Williams Watt’s cattle ranch in windswept West Texas. The corroded skeletons are all that remain of hundreds of abandoned oil wells that were drilled long before her family owned the land. The wells, unable to produce any useful amounts of oil or gas, were plugged with cement decades ago and forgotten.
But something eerie is going on beneath the land, where Watt once played among the mesquite trees, jackrabbits and javelina and first drove the dirt roads at 10 years old. One by one, the wells seem to be unplugging themselves. They’re leaking dangerous chemicals that are seeping into groundwater beneath her ranch.
Now 35, Watt believes the problems on her ranch, which sprawls across the oil-rich fields of the Permian Basin, are getting worse. In April, she found crude oil bubbling from an abandoned well. In June, an oil company worker called to alert her that another well was seeping pools of salty produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction containing toxic chemicals.
“I’m watching this well literally just spew brine water into my water table, and then I have to go home at night, and I’m sweaty and tired and smelly, and I get in the shower, and I turn on the shower and I look at it, and I think, is this shower going to kill me?” Watt said.
The crisis unfolding on Watt’s 75,000-acre ranch offers a window on a growing problem for the oil industry and the communities and governments that are often left to clean up the mess. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells exist in the United States. About a third of them were plugged with cement, which is considered the proper way to prevent harmful chemical leaks. But most haven’t been plugged at all.
Many of the wells are releasing methane, a greenhouse gas containing about 86 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide over two decades. Some are leaking chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into fields and groundwater.