Oilfield trash left behind at the site of the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A- Well No. 2, plugged by the Texas Railroad Commission on March 2023. Photos by Elliott Woods

By Elliot Woods / Capital&Main

After a century and a half of oil and gas production in the United States, the nonprofit environmental watchdog Climate Tracker published a sobering report in 2020: Some 2.6 million unplugged onshore wells lay scattered across the country. Plugging all those derelict holes, from the rocky Appalachian hill country of western Pennsylvania to the dry plains of West Texas and the tundra of Alaska, and countless points between, might cost as much as $280 billion. And that figure from the report did not include undocumented wells — the ones that have vanished from the books, if they were ever recorded in the first place. Carbon Tracker’s estimate of the number of undocumented onshore wells was also striking: 1.2 million. 

Since 1859, when the first successful American oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, no state has had more holes punched through its bedrock or has sucked more hydrocarbons out of the ground than Texas. Carbon Tracker uses data from the energy industry analytics company Enverus to identify wells that are inactive or low producing, said Rob Schuwerk, executive director of Carbon Tracker’s North America operation. And as of 2024, Carbon Tracker reports there are 476,790 documented wells that have been drilled, but not plugged, in the Lone Star State. The lengthy list includes those that have ceased operation and been added to the state’s orphan well program. 

For a well to be listed as an orphan by the Texas Railroad Commission — the oil and gas regulator that manages the state’s well-plugging program — it must have been inactive for at least 12 months and have an operator whose Organization Report has also been delinquent for at least a year. There are 8,580 wells on the current Texas orphan list, which was last updated in April. The Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, uses a simpler definition of orphans: “oil and gas wells that are inactive, unplugged, and have no solvent owner of record.”

Of the nearly half-million unplugged wells Carbon Tracker has identified in Texas, more than a third have either been temporarily abandoned, have not produced in five or more years or have never produced oil or gas, Schuwerk said. Most of the rest are low-producing stripper wells. Only 15% of the unplugged wells in the state produce more than 15 barrels of oil equivalent per day, Schuwerk said. (The most recent figures from the Railroad Commission show that the state’s 246,133 active oil and gas wells produced an average of 41 barrels of oil equivalent per day in January.) Derelict wells are more than a nuisance — they are virtual doomsday machines that foul the air, pollute the soil, threaten groundwater and make it increasingly likely that we won’t meet our carbon reduction goals in the near future. In Texas and other oil and gas producing states, the bill for oilfield cleanup is staggering, but there are signs that state and federal lawmakers are getting serious about paying it.

<img decoding="async" data-attachment-id="105825" data-permalink="https://scheerpost.com/2024/06/02/texas-has-the-most-aggressive-well-plugging-program-in-the-u-s-so-why-is-its-to-do-list-so-long/20240508_monahans_001-scaled-1/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_001-scaled-1.jpg?fit=2000%2C1500&ssl=1" data-orig-size="2000,1500" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"1.7","credit":"Elliott D. Woods 2024","camera":"FC3582","caption":"Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.","created_timestamp":"1715235138","copyright":"","focal_length":"6.72","iso":"110","shutter_speed":"0.00033333333333333","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="20240508_Monahans_001-scaled-1" data-image-description="" data-image-caption="

Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_001-scaled-1.jpg?fit=300%2C225&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_001-scaled-1.jpg?fit=780%2C585&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_001-scaled-1.jpg?resize=780%2C585&ssl=1″ alt=”” class=”wp-image-105825″ style=”width:725px;height:auto” data-recalc-dims=”1″/>

Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.

On the heels of the Carbon Tracker report, the U.S. Congress in 2021 passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which earmarked $4.7 billion for “orphaned well site plugging, remediation and restoration activities on federal, Tribal, state and private lands,” all to be administered by the Department of Interior. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, some 120,000 wells in the United States would qualify for plugging under the new federal program, including the entire Texas orphan list. Plugging those wells and eliminating the methane they emit would be the equivalent of taking 1.5 million-4.3 million cars in the United States off the road for a year, the Environmental Defense Fund noted in a press release

The reaction to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which the Department of Interiordescribed as a “historic investment” that would “ reduce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from orphaned wells, help clean up water contamination, restore native habitat, create good-paying union jobs and benefit disproportionately impacted communities,” was chilly at the Texas Railroad Commission.

 “We’re going to wait to see what their rules are before we decide if we have the opportunity to accept those dollars,” Commissioner Christi Craddick said in a speech at a Texas Pipeline Association meeting in January 2023. Craddick said she intended to protect Texas from regulatory strings attached to the bill that might be “hostile to energy.” 

By the end of 2023, Texas had decided to take the federal money after all, accepting a $25 million grant to step up its state-managed plugging program, with an additional $319 million to follow in subsequent funding rounds. The flood of federal funds augments state dollars — $52.5 million in 2023, according to commission spokesperson Patty Ramon — that have funded a state-managed well-plugging program since 1984. 

At the Capitol in Austin, Rep. Brooks Landgraf, an oil and gas attorney who represents the city of Odessa and chairs the Texas House Environmental Regulation Committee, has been driving an effort to boost funding for oilfield cleanup — including plugging orphan wells — as part of a larger effort to rehabilitate areas hit hard by intensive energy industry activity. For more than a decade, since the start of the fracking boom, Permian Basin cities, towns and rural areas have seen their roads degraded by endless streams of semis hauling water, sand and heavy equipment. One of those roads, Highway 285, has grown so dangerous from oilfield traffic that it is known as “Death Highway.”  The boom has also stressed schools, hospitals, law enforcement and health care resources, and caused a deterioration of air and water quality in the region, which is home to about half a million people, according to the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission.

“This is something that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of money, but it’s something we have to do,” Landgraf said in May 2022. “We have to clean up our state.” A bill authored by Landgraf that would have tapped a new severance tax to increase funding for orphan plugging passed the Texas House of Representatives in 2023 with overwhelming support but died in the Senate. Landgraf told Capital & Main that he plans to bring the bill back in the 2025 session.

<img decoding="async" data-attachment-id="105828" data-permalink="https://scheerpost.com/2024/06/02/texas-has-the-most-aggressive-well-plugging-program-in-the-u-s-so-why-is-its-to-do-list-so-long/20230427_pecoscounty_090-scaled-1/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_090-scaled-1.jpg?fit=2000%2C1335&ssl=1" data-orig-size="2000,1335" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"8","credit":"Elliott D. Woods 2023","camera":"NIKON D750","caption":"Pecos County, TX: The APV McCamey Mag-N- #32, an orphan well on property owned by Exxon-Mobil.","created_timestamp":"1682610528","copyright":"","focal_length":"36","iso":"100","shutter_speed":"0.002","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="20230427_PecosCounty_090-scaled-1" data-image-description="" data-image-caption="

Pecos County, TX: The APV McCamey Mag-N- #32, an orphan well on property owned by Exxon-Mobil.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_090-scaled-1.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_090-scaled-1.jpg?fit=780%2C521&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_090-scaled-1.jpg?resize=780%2C521&ssl=1″ alt=”” class=”wp-image-105828″ style=”width:640px;height:auto” data-recalc-dims=”1″/>

Pecos County, TX: The APV McCamey Mag-N- #32, an orphan well on property owned by Exxon-Mobil.

In a radio interview in April 2023, Craddick said she and the other commissioners on the Texas Railroad Commission believe “it’s important that we plug wells” and that Texas has the “most aggressive well-plugging program” in the country. “We have just under 1,000 people who work for this agency. Of that, almost half are inspectors,” Craddick said. (Ramon said the commission actually employs 180 inspectors in the oil and gas division.) “We go and inspect these wells and identify where it is and then put them on a list,” Craddick said. “When they go on a list, we prioritize them. Then, we have a process to determine whether they should be plugged sooner rather than later.” 

Ramon said the commission has been “exceeding [plugging] targets set by the Legislature for seven straight years and counting.” But despite plugging in excess of 1,500 wells each year, the backlog of Texas orphans never seems to diminish. Worse, that list does not include an unknown number of unplugged wells that are undocumented, abandoned, or otherwise likely to meet the orphan criteria in the future.

Since July 2020, the number of officially recognized orphans in Texas has never dropped below 6,208, according to monthly versions of the Railroad Commission’s orphan list obtained through an open records request. The average number of orphans over 42 months, including the most recent April 2024 list, was 7,907 (no lists were provided for July and August 2021 or December 2023, and the October 2020 list was blank). In March 2024, the number of orphans suddenly surged by nearly 4,000 to 12,205, before dropping back to 8,580 in April. Asked for an explanation, Ramon said the March list “inadvertently included wells that were not orphaned.” Ramon did not respond to a question about what process the commission uses to add and remove orphans from the list, or how such a meteoric leap and crash in orphan numbers could have inadvertently occurred in the span of a single month.

<img decoding="async" data-attachment-id="105829" data-permalink="https://scheerpost.com/2024/06/02/texas-has-the-most-aggressive-well-plugging-program-in-the-u-s-so-why-is-its-to-do-list-so-long/20230427_pecoscounty_151-scaled-1/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_151-scaled-1.jpg?fit=2000%2C1335&ssl=1" data-orig-size="2000,1335" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"11","credit":"Elliott D. Woods 2023","camera":"NIKON D750","caption":"Pecos County, TX: Mosaic Midland, LLC, is the operator on record for the Cordz-Juul #13, an orphan well that sits on a small parcel of company-owned land completely surrounded by Schuyler Wightu2019s ranch, close to Fort Stockton, Texas. u201cThese oil companies buy land so they wonu2019t have to clean up their messes,u201d Wight said.","created_timestamp":"1682614698","copyright":"","focal_length":"28","iso":"100","shutter_speed":"0.002","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="20230427_PecosCounty_151-scaled-1" data-image-description="" data-image-caption="

Pecos County, TX: Mosaic Midland, LLC, is the operator on record for the Cordz-Juul #13, an orphan well that sits on a small parcel of company-owned land completely surrounded by Schuyler Wight’s ranch, close to Fort Stockton, Texas. “These oil companies buy land so they won’t have to clean up their messes,” Wight said.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_151-scaled-1.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_151-scaled-1.jpg?fit=780%2C521&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20230427_PecosCounty_151-scaled-1.jpg?resize=780%2C521&ssl=1″ alt=”” class=”wp-image-105829″ style=”width:624px;height:auto” data-recalc-dims=”1″/>

Pecos County, TX: Mosaic Midland, LLC, is the operator on record for the Cordz-Juul #13, an orphan well that sits on a small parcel of company-owned land completely surrounded by Schuyler Wight’s ranch, close to Fort Stockton, Texas. “These oil companies buy land so they won’t have to clean up their messes,” Wight said.

Asked if the commission has an estimate of the number of orphaned or abandoned wells that are not on the list, Ramon said, “All orphaned wells are on the list.” In a follow-up email, Ramon clarified that the state maintains the orphan list, which includes only wells that meet the dual criteria for orphans — inactive for at least a year, with an operator whose organizational paperwork has also been delinquent for at least a year — and a separate list of “Wells Remaining to be Plugged with State Managed Funds,” which is updated monthly and includes a mix of orphans and nonorphan wells that the state intends to plug during the current fiscal year, along with a cost estimate for each job. 

As for identifying wells to plug under the program — orphan or not — Ramon said the commission uses a “Well Plugging Priority System” worksheet, with which it determines a well’s rating on a scale from Priority 1, the most urgent — leaking wells that need plugging immediately — to Priority 4, the least urgent. Whether a well meets the dual orphan criteria, or whether it is on the commission’s official orphan list, does not factor into its priority rating on the worksheet, though there is a line item for wells with operators that have been delinquent for more than five years.

Out of 185 wells approved by the commission for plugging with state funds in March, according to documents obtained by Capital & Main through an open records request, at least three never appeared on the orphan list. The operator of one of those wells, Outline Oil Company LLC, located in Beeville, Texas, has a valid Organization Report and is in good standing with the Texas Comptroller’s Office. Ramon declined to explain why the state had committed an estimated $110,000 to plug Outline’s well, rather than requiring the operator to plug it. The remaining wells approved for plugging on the March list, but that were absent from the orphan list, have operators whose Organization Reports have been delinquent for years. The state estimates it will spend $120,000 replugging two gas wells owned by Dallas-based Arriola Operating and Consulting Inc., which has been delinquent since January 2013. The commission’s wellbore database lists the wells, which were both originally plugged in 1985, under a different operator. The commission will also spend an estimated $26,500 replugging a well owned by Coleman-based Ringo Rig LLC that records show had spent years on the orphan list before being plugged by the state in August 2023 and subsequently removed from the list. Ringo Rig LLC has been delinquent since July 2019. 

<img decoding="async" data-attachment-id="105831" data-permalink="https://scheerpost.com/2024/06/02/texas-has-the-most-aggressive-well-plugging-program-in-the-u-s-so-why-is-its-to-do-list-so-long/20240508_monahans_035-scaled-1/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_035-scaled-1.jpg?fit=2000%2C1500&ssl=1" data-orig-size="2000,1500" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"1.8","credit":"Elliott D. Woods 2024","camera":"iPhone X","caption":"Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.","created_timestamp":"1715207411","copyright":"","focal_length":"4","iso":"20","shutter_speed":"0.0013698630136986","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="20240508_Monahans_035-scaled-1" data-image-description="" data-image-caption="

Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_035-scaled-1.jpg?fit=300%2C225&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_035-scaled-1.jpg?fit=780%2C585&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/scheerpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/06/20240508_Monahans_035-scaled-1.jpg?resize=780%2C585&ssl=1″ alt=”” class=”wp-image-105831″ style=”width:576px;height:auto” data-recalc-dims=”1″/>

Pecos County, TX: Signs of leakage are visible in on the side of the pumpjack and at the wellhead at the orphaned Beach Oil & Gas Olix-A Well No. 1, near Monahans, TX.

“Not only do we plug orphaned wells, we also plug a well if an operator does not take action as directed at a leaking well,” Ramon said in an email. “Bottom line: we do not abdicate our duty to protect the environment; we plug wells, orphan or non-orphan, and eliminate pollution threats.” Ramon did not respond to questions about whether the commission has an estimate of how many nonorphans may eventually become the state’s responsibility, finding their way onto the orphan list, the plugging list, or both. 

If there is a bottom line, it’s that Texas has no solid estimate of the number of unplugged wells within its borders that may one day become wards of the state. Some date back to the earliest years of oil exploration, when few if any records were kept. Others are still producing, but with operators who may not have enough cash when it comes time to end the well’s life and plug it — which is their legal responsibility. Others stopped producing a long time ago, and belong to delinquent operators, but for some reason are not included on the orphan list.

“Right now the Railroad Commission estimates that we have almost 8,000 orphan wells that need to be plugged in the state of Texas,” Rep. Landgraf said back in 2022, when he was drumming up support for more orphan funding. “In reality there are probably more than that, because we just don’t know where they all are or how many exist.”

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Elliot Woods

Elliot Woods is a regular writer for Capital&Main. Read more from this author at the link below and visit his X profile here.

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