Life in the Oilfields – Oil and water

Schuyler Wight

When those wells blow out and then they blow that salt water all over the place, it poisons the ground and that ground will be poisoned for generations. – Schuyler Wight

The following is an excerpt of an interview by Michael Lewis of Environment Texas with Schuyler Wight, a rancher living in the Permian Basin. The questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

This is part of our “Stories from the Oilfields” series of collected interviews from residents of the oil producing areas of Texas and experts on the impacts of the fossil fuel industry. See our full series HERE.

Environment Texas traveled to Midland and Odessa, Texas in the Permian to hear the thoughts and opinions of people living and working near fossil fuel production sites. This article is the collection of interviews in our “Life in the Oilfields” series.

Environment Texas: Could you state it in your own words, kind of what you’re seeing and what you’ve been dealing with? 

Schuyler Wight: Well, I’ve been a lifelong rancher here in West Texas, fourth generation rancher. And the property in Pecos County was something that I bought. It’s not family property. It’s a property that I bought back. I started buying it back in 1993 and then kind of moved forward. And here, about four or five years ago, I accelerated that and buying up more property. And as I bought up more property, I got into an area where there’s a lot of abandoned wells and a lot of environmental issues and kind of had to take on this fight to get that cleaned up.

Environment Texas: And what kind of environmental issues are you seeing? 

Schuyler Wight: A little bit of everything. There’s a lot of groundwater pollution. There’s pollution at the surface. When it flows to surface, this water has all kinds of contaminants in it. It has benzene and toluene, which are cancer causing chemicals. And then it also has salt and chlorides. It has H2S (hydrogen sulfide) in it. They’re making a little bit of methane through a little bit of gas coming out. So there’s methane coming out too, and there’s radiation too. The radiation levels are pretty high in some of these wells. 

Environment Texas: What does the state tell you? 

Schuyler Wight: Well, you know, it depends on who you talk to. I mean, the Railroad Commission, they don’t want to take ownership of these P-13 wells. They say it belongs to the TCEQ, these orphan wells. The Railroad Commission has authority over them, but they can’t get them all plugged because they got too many of them.

Environment Texas: Could you explain what you mean by a P-13 well for people who aren’t familiar with that? 

Schuyler Wight: A P-13 well is a well that was originally drilled as an oil and gas well. And there’s a process that you can go through in a form called a P-13 form. And what they do is they plug the well. The oil and gas company will plug the well back to the usable water and then turn that well over to the landowner. And then at that point, it becomes landowners responsibility.

It’s just a form. The operator has a bond to operate that well, and they have to take responsibility for it, put up a bond and all that. But the landowner doesn’t have to do anything. They don’t have a bond or anything to take that well over. This well could cost millions of dollars to fix it, but there’s nothing backing that up to make sure that it gets fixed and taken care of.

Environment Texas: Could you give us a brief idea of who you’ve talked to and what actions you’ve tried to take to get the state to fix this problem? 

Schuyler Wight: Well, I’ve been to three House hearings and one Senate hearing. I’ve been to the Capitol and talked to a lot of staffers. Staffers with Tom Craddock’s office, Brooks Landgraf, Eddie Morales, Senator Cesar Blanco, Senator Birdwell, Senator Perry, Senator Kolkhorst, Senator Zaffarini’s office. Representative Cassal’s office. Representative Goodwin. 

Environment Texas: Are you concerned about what this is going to do to the land? 

Schuyler Wight: When those wells blow out and then they blow that salt water all over the place, it poisons the ground and that ground will be poisoned for generations. There’s stuff out there that probably won’t clean up in my kids lifetime. When you make a living off of what grows out of the ground, it’s hard to make a living when nothing will grow. 

Environment Texas: What would you ask for if you could do one thing? 

Schuyler Wight: There’s a lot of things I would ask for, but the one thing that needs to happen, and it needs to happen fairly quickly, is for the legislature to bring all these P-13 wells back under Railroad Commission jurisdiction. The problem with those is right now they’re stuck in no man’s land. Nobody has responsibility for them other than the landowners, and the landowners don’t have the wherewithal to take care of them. 

The Railroad Commission does a poor job of plugging wells and taking care of their message, but they’re the only agency in the state that can do it. 

Environment Texas: Do you have anything else that you want to be sure that we talk about or something that you just want people to know about what you’re dealing with who’ve never been out to the Permian and who aren’t familiar with fossil fuel production? 

Schuyler Wight: Yeah, I think kind of looking at it from a 30,000 foot level, I think the emphasis on methane emissions and all that is kind of missing the bigger pollution issue. The bigger pollution issue is the water in these old well bores. It’s these old wellbores. There’s probably over 100,000 of these things scattered across the state, and they’re sitting there rusting and leaking, and the Railroad Commission is not taking care of them. And the nasty water from the old oil and gas production is actively polluting the fresh water all across the state. 

And this is not just a problem in the Permian basin. It’s a problem all over the state. Most ranchers have one or two or maybe a half dozen orphan wells on my property. I’m kind of unique in that I’ve got over 100 of them. But I think this is a problem that everybody ought to be concerned with, not just in the Permian basin.