WASHINGTON — Thousands of abandoned, dried-up wells blanket Texas, serving as monuments to the state's long history of oil and gas drilling.
The state is working to plug and clean up those wells and now an infusion of millions of dollars in federal funding can help bolster those efforts.
“It’s an important example of the federal government and state governments working together in a bipartisan fashion,” Winnie Stachelberg, the Interior Department’s senior adviser and infrastructure coordinator, told Capital Tonight. “This is the federal government and Texas working together, identifying a problem. These are orphaned oil and gas wells that leak methane, that litter the landscape, that cause damage to our environment, to wildlife, to private land, to ranches, to agriculture.”
The Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulatory agency over the oil and gas industry, will begin work in September to plug 800 so-called orphaned wells through an initial grant of $25 million under Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden helped push through Congress.
“We’re going to work with state regulators. We’re going to work with elected officials and other stakeholders to ensure that there’s proper oversight with those dollars being spent, that there are guidelines that are appropriate, and really, that the historic investment is spent in a smart way,” Stachelberg said.
In an editorial for the Dallas Morning News, Republican Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright said he is wary of the strings typically attached to federal dollars, but said this is one instance where Texas should welcome the help.
“As a lifelong Texan and staunch conservative, I’m not one to advocate for accepting federal funds unless it is absolutely necessary, because it too often comes with additional oversight or limits on how the state can utilize these funds. However, it would be a mistake to forgo these federal funds,” he wrote. “Supplementing our existing funding with additional federal dollars will allow the Railroad Commission to attain greater cost efficiencies in our plugging program.”
The money in this initial round will only cover a fraction of the 7,400 of orphaned wells in the state, according to RRC numbers.
Commission Shift, a watchdog group pushing for reforms to the Texas oil and gas industry oversight, said while it welcomes the federal dollars to help lower the backlog of orphaned wells, it worries there are too many extensions given to current operators to cap wells under the state program. This, on top of the more than 140,000 unplugged wells the state considers “inactive” for more than a year.
Virginia Palacios, Commission Shift’s executive director, argued it is not just a legacy issue.
“It’s exposed landowners to this risk of wells, sitting around unplugged and then eventually blowing out, were leaking. And so it is good that we have these federal funds to help lower the backlog, but we’re expecting to have more and more orphan wells,” Palacios said. “A lot of these orphan wells are being orphaned in modern times, every single year, by existing operators. What we would like to see is for the Railroad Commission to change the way it allows plugging extensions for current operators.”
“We should do more to make sure that operators pay the money to plug their own wells and clean up after their own mess,” she said.
Chairman Wayne Christian, in a statement to Capital Tonight, championed the state managed well plugging program.
“Approximately 92% of the wells plugged in Texas are plugged by the operator of record using no taxpayer funds. In the last five years, RRC outperformed Texas legislative requirements by an overall average of about 20%, plugging 1,453 wells last year alone,” Christian said. “Plugging orphan wells is an issue the Railroad Commission takes extremely seriously. The Commission has world-class expertise plugging wells and uses public funds responsibility to the benefit of the safety and security of Texans and our environment.”
The State of Texas is eligible to receive $343 million under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to plug abandoned oil wells.