Testimony to Texas Senate’s Natural Resources and Economic Development Committee

Will Texas take action on orphaned wells?

Oil pump in the desert
Christopher Boswell | Shutterstock.com

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development heard testimony on abandoned oil and gas wells in this state and the best use of federal and state funds to address the problem. Our Clean Air and Water Advocate Michael Lewis prepared the following testimony:

Michael Lewis – Environment Texas, Cyrus Reed – Sierra Club, Senator Zaffirini – Texas’ 21st District, and Virginia Palacios – Commission ShiftPhoto by Office of Senator Zaffirini | Used by permission

Environment Texas Research and Policy Center is a statewide, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on cleaner air, water, and energy for all Texans. In 2021, atmospheric methane levels reached an all time high. To call that “alarming” is an understatement. Recently, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report saying we must dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to head off the worst impacts of climate change. In the U.S. alone, the oil and gas industry releases 16 million metric tons of methane each year, with the same near-term climate impact as 350 coal plants. Without immediate action, methane pollution from the industry will continue to skyrocket.

Over the past decade, the fracking boom in the Permian Basin, has expanded oil production and subsequently increased methane emissions through flaring and venting. Flaring releases other toxic pollutants like soot, nitrogen oxides, and other volatile organic compounds that create ground level ozone when exposed to sunlight. These can irritate airways, causing a myriad of human health issues. A recent Environment Texas report found that flaring and venting in the Permian Basin emits the same number of toxic pollutants as three coal-fired power plants daily. Meanwhile the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) approved 27,000 flaring permits between 2012 and 2019, and approved almost 7,000 exceptions in 2019. Multiple independent studies have found that flaring occurs even more often illegally, and instruments placed by the Environmental Defense Fund have found oil and gas facilities leaking raw methane into the air in the Permian Basin.

When these wells are abandoned, they become ecological timebombs. In 2019, Texas had over 6,000 orphan wells, but only 1,700 had been plugged. These unplugged wells are major contributors to Texas’ emissions and climate change, and also represent a human health hazard. These wells can release methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are potent greenhouse gasses that lead to higher mortality rates. One estimate puts methane emissions from leaking wells in Texas as equivalent to burning 150 million pounds of coal or 23,000 cars on Texas roads. Meanwhile, brine in wells often contains toxins and radioactive substances that can contaminate groundwater – between 1993 and 2008, 30 groundwater sites throughout Texas were contaminated due to unplugged wells. These wells can even cause sinkholes stranding heavy equipment. All of these issues cost the state exponentially more than it would have cost to simply plug the well.

The Texas landscape is blotched with orphaned wells which have largely been ignored until recently when a combination of greater concern for environmental health and a rash of fossil fuel company bankruptcies pushed the problem into the Texas public’s consciousness. While well operators are required to have bonds to plug and remediate abandoned wells, it is estimated that they cover less than 16% of actual costs. The state is then responsible for plugging the well to ensure that there are no methane leaks, a critical job as unplugged wells leak 5,000 times the amount of methane as a plugged well. When these wells become abandoned, they become Texas’s problem and the taxpayer’s financial burden. Texas must require full-cost bonding for the plugging of wells and cleaning of their associated sites. Companies must be held responsible for their own actions.

Due to recent federal legislation, the solution to these issues is closer than it once was. As part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal government has earmarked $4.7 billion to address orphaned wells and Texas is estimated to qualify for just over $343 million in phase 1 of funding. While that still falls short of the estimated $117 billion in funding needed to clean up our roughly 783,000 orphaned wells, it can definitely start to plug the gap.

Environment Texas recommends that federal and state funds be used to increase inspections of active wells from once every five to once every two years and monitor previously plugged wells for failures. Additionally, Texas must develop a specific, attainable, and timely strategy to eliminate orphaned wells and sites. Currently, the problem of orphaned wells is not even accurately defined. There are legacy sites in Texas that are not on the RRC’s list. As part of an actual strategic plan, a full inventory must be done, along with future forecasting of new orphaned wells, a true estimation of costs that does not rely on linear estimates based solely on depth, and a close look at existing regulations, tools, and infrastructure to increase efficiency and impact of plugin operations. Lastly, long term monitoring programs of previously abandoned and plugged wells need to be strengthened.

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Michael Lewis

Clean Air and Water Advocate, Environment Texas

Michael works to promote clean air and clean water in Texas. Michael lives in central Texas with his family and spends most of his free time hiking and gaming.

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