WASHINGTON — Texas will tap into hundreds of millions of dollars under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to plug abandoned oil and gas wells. Thousands of these so-called orphaned wells exist in the state and advocates have long warned of the danger they can pose to public health and the environment.
Oil and gas drilling began on Molly Rooke’s ranch in Refugio in the 1920s. Those wells dried up and were abandoned for over 20 years. Rooke considered them a ticking time bomb.
“You could tell by looking at them how rusted and fragile they were. They were falling apart, literally falling apart,” Rooke said. “The longer that this went on, and the worst condition that they were in, it seemed like was it was inevitable if they didn’t do something about it soon.”
She realized her fears in 2019, when one of the orphaned wells started spewing methane, a greenhouse gas. Rooke said she tried for years to get operators and the state to spend the money to plug them.
“It felt terrible. It seemed so unnecessary. We had asked for so many years,” Rooke said. “You try to do everything you can and then nothing happens to fix it. Then, you have the problem like we did with it spewing, with its blowing out. I was really angry.”
The Biden administration announced this week Texas will be eligible to receive $343 million under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells across the state. It would be the biggest such allocation in the country. White House officials said an initial $1.15 billion will be available to states as part of this federal effort and the Department of the Interior estimates there are around 130,000 orphaned oil and gas wells in the country.
“Never before has this country taken on a cleanup effort like this,” said White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu.
Officials said it is not only good for public health, it is also an economic opportunity.
“Part of the reason Texas is receiving so much money is because of the importance of this programming, creating new good paying jobs and putting people back to work,” said Winnie Stachelberg, infrastructure coordinator with the Department of the Interior. “Texas had by far the largest job loss in the oil and gas industry of any state between March of 2020 and November of 2021.”
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, estimates there are about 7,000 orphaned wells in the state. While plugging these wells that are no longer productive largely falls on the responsibility of operators, the Texas Railroad Commission has been administering a program to do so.
Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, which aims to reform oil and gas oversight in Texas, said while the watchdog group welcomes the federal dollars, the state must do more to prevent the problem from getting out of hand.
“It’s time for operators to clean up their toys. Apparently, they need their parents to tell them to do that. And so it’s time for the railroad commission to step in and say, plug your wells, clean up your sites,” Palacios said. “The Railroad Commission should be holding those operators accountable to plugging their inactive wells before the operators potentially go bankrupt and leave orphaned wells to the state.”
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, advocated to include the funding in the infrastructure package. She acknowledged how current programs lack the funding to tackle what she called a "monumental problem." Fletcher pointed to research from Columbia University saying that a federal program to plug abandoned wells could create as many as 120,000 jobs.
"These job losses have been especially acute in places like Texas and regions where oil and gas production occurs in the United States. And so as we work to recover from the pandemic, the funding that was announced this week and the additional funding that is still slated to come in future rounds will really provide incredible opportunities to get our skilled oil and gas workforce," Fletcher told reporters.
Rooke said it took a lawsuit to clean up the abandoned wells on her ranch. She is worried about the hazards posed by the many orphaned wells that are not capped. Besides belching methane, the wells can contaminate groundwater.
“Their families could be harmed by it. Wildlife could be harmed, and certainly the climate is, and there’s, there’s just no need for that,” Rooke said.
But under the infrastructure bill, at least some of those wells will no longer be a threat.