San Francisco Chronicle
Forgotten oil and gas wells linger, leaking chemicals
CRANE, Texas — Rusted pipes litter the sandy fields of Ashley Williams Watt’s cattle ranch in windswept West Texas. Corroded skeletons are all that remain of hundreds of abandoned oil wells. Unable to produce any useful amounts of oil or gas, the wells were plugged with cement decades ago.
But something eerie is going on beneath the land, where Watt once played among the mesquite trees and jackrabbits. The wells seem to be unplugging themselves. They’re leaking dangerous chemicals onto her fields.
First she found crude oil bubbling from one abandoned well. Then an another well was seeping pools of 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.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells exist in the United States. About a third were plugged with cement to prevent leaks. Most haven’t been plugged at all.
Many of the wells are releasing methane, a greenhouse gas containing about 86 times the climatewarming power of carbon dioxide over two decades. Some are leaking chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into groundwater.
Regulators don’t know where hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells are because many were drilled before modern recordkeeping and plugging rules were established. They are a silent menace, threatening to explode or contaminate drinking water.
In recent years, abandoned wells have been found on the Navajo Nation, where a hiker stumbled across wells oozing fluid that smelled like motor oil; in Colorado, where a basement exploded, killing two men after an abandoned flowline leaked methane; and in Wyoming, where a school shut down after air tests revealed high levels of benzene and carbon dioxide.
President Biden wants to spend billions plugging the wells. But Congress is unlikely to allocate enough money to seriously confront the issue.
“If, all of a sudden, we could switch to all green renewable energy, that’s great, but these wells don’t disappear; they’re still going to be there,” said Mary Kang, an assistant professor at McGill University.
After the discoveries on Watt’s ranch, traces of benzene showed up in the well that supplies her cattle’s drinking water. Chevron, which owned two of the oil wells that recently came unplugged, began trucking in drinking water while its crews tried to fix the leaks. But Watt worried her animals might have consumed contaminated water. So she had her 600 head of cattle hauled off to another part of her ranch.
Watt fears additional wells are deteriorating, and Chevron doesn’t plan to check its other wells. If Watt should inform Chevron of another leaking well, “if we have to take responsibility, we will and we’ll do the right thing by the landowner,” said Catie Mathews, a company spokeswoman.
The first successful commercial oil well in the U.S. was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, but few detailed records survived that early oil boom.
Pennsylvania has located roughly 8,700 orphaned wells, mostly unplugged. Yet based on historical photos and surveys, Pennsylvania estimates between 100,000 and 560,000 additional unplugged wells around the state.
In addition to polluting groundwater, the wells are accelerating global warming. Unplugged, abandoned wells in the U.S. leaked 5,000 times more methane than plugged wells did, according to a study cited by the EPA.
Many states require companies to plug wells that are tapped out and to post bonds in case they go bellyup, but those bonds don’t cover the cost. In 2018, oilproducing states spent $45 million plugging orphaned wells, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.