HSE & Sustainability

States Struggle To Plug Oil Wells With Infrastructure Law Cash

The bipartisan infrastructure law included $4.7 to start plugging wells. But the new federal money is creating logistical and regulatory challenges, raising questions about whether the money will live up to its promise.

Rancher Schuyler Wight stands near an orphaned well on one of his ranches in far West Texas. 
Source: Shelby Webb/E&E News

Across Schuyler Wight’s two West Texas ranches, about 250 abandoned oil and gas wells sit open and unused, creating a link from the dusty surface to smelly chemicals and gases thousands of feet underground.

Some of the wells are constantly bringing up noxious liquid, creating poisonous puddles and pools across Schuyler’s land that have killed cattle. Other wells bubble with methane, releasing the greenhouse gas silently into the air.

“Over time with these wells, the casing rusts, they get pipes stuck. There’s caverns that form, there’s all kinds of crazy things that can happen,” Schuyler said. “It’s an expensive process to go out there and fix those once things get too old.”

There may be as many as 800,000 orphaned wells across the country, according to some estimates. In 2021, states reported 126,806 to the Department of Interior, although many experts say that number vastly understates the problem. Along with being eyesores, the wells may be polluting groundwater and are estimated to be the tenth largest source of methane emissions in the US, according to a study by McGill University in Canada.

The bipartisan infrastructure law signed into law in November 2021 included $4.7 billion in federal grants to start plugging the wells, creating new programs in many states. But the new federal money is creating logistical and regulatory challenges, state officials said, raising questions about whether the money will live up to its promise.

Some officials say they are having a hard time finding enough crews to plug the wells under the timelines dictated by the federal funds and available workers are charging higher prices than originally anticipated. State counts in some of the most prolific oil states are lower than expected, raising concerns about whether the money is flowing to where it’s most needed. State agencies need to create methods for prioritizing which wells should be plugged.

Many orphaned wells also remain undiscovered, putting pressure on states to develop new methods for finding and plugging them.

“It’s a constant game of catch-up,” said Jason Simmerman, the orphan well program manager for Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources. “We find new wells every week in the state of Ohio.”

New rules for well-plugging grant money announced by Interior—which distributes the infrastructure law funds—also have frustrated some state oil and gas regulatory officials, who say the requirements may slow their efforts and keep them from applying for more federal funds.

The new rules, which dictate how $660 million of federal funds are allocated for plugging wells, will require states to track methane emissions, develop screening processes to check for groundwater pollution and prioritize plugging wells near historically underserved communities.

“Bidenomics and President Biden’s Investing in America agenda are enabling us to confront long-standing environmental injustices by making a historic investment to plug orphaned wells throughout the country,”  Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

However, Lori Wrotenbery, executive director of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, said in an email that Interior cannot require states to track methane or groundwater pollution and can instead only tell states they are “expected” or “encouraged” to do so. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission represents all but one of the 26 states that have been deemed eligible to receive the federal orphaned well plugging funds.

Interior’s “characterization of these provisions is incorrect because DOI has no authority under the (infrastructure law) to require them and, even if DOI had that authority, DOI could not implement them by issuing guidance as opposed to promulgating a regulation,” she wrote. “The most DOI can do through guidance is define its expectations and priorities and describe what it considers to be appropriate practices.”

In a statement, Interior said that, while methane and water pollution measurements were encouraged in its initial grants, they are now requirements in this first phase of formula funding.

Read the full story here.