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‘Dry hole’ wells in Texas can leak contaminants, but they aren’t being cleaned up by the state

 Schuyler Wight’s ranch near Midland is peppered with more than 100 abandoned wells drilled by wildcatters hunting for oil. Some of them are spewing water with hydrogen sulfide and other contaminants that have sickened or killed his cattle.
Mitch Borden
/
Marfa Public Radio
Schuyler Wight’s ranch near Midland is peppered with more than 100 abandoned wells drilled by wildcatters hunting for oil. Some of them are spewing water with hydrogen sulfide and other contaminants that have sickened or killed his cattle.

While P-13 wells are technically considered water wells, they were originally drilled for oil and gas exploration.

About 8,000 defunct oil and gas wells sit abandoned across Texas, waiting to be plugged and cleaned up by regulators.

But that’s just part of the total number of inactive wells. In addition to that backlog is another category: so-called “dry hole wells” that have the potential to pollute farmland and groundwater. Energy companies originally drilled the wells looking for oil and gas, and when they didn’t find any, turned them over to landowners as “water wells.” According to reporting from climate news outlet Floodlight, there’s little information on exactly how many of those types of wells exist. What’s more – it’s unclear who’s responsibility it is to clean them up.

Amal Ahmed, Texas investigative reporter for Floodlight, spoke with Texas Standard about these wells. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Your reporting focuses on these dry hole wells, or P-13 wells as they’re known in the industry. What exactly are they, and how are they different from other defunct wells drilled by oil and gas companies? 

Amal Ahmed: Yeah, a good question. So a P-13 well is essentially … maybe in the ’50s or ’60s, if you think of wildcat drillers, who are sort of just drilling at random trying to hit oil and gas out in a place like West Texas, a lot of those never really hit oil or gas, so they just kind of drilled all the way down into the rock and maybe they opened up water or other minerals. So particularly in the case of these water wells, the operators could file a form of the Railroad Commission called a P-13 form, and that well, which was drilled as an oil and gas well, could be converted to a water well and then given to the landowner, who in many cases thought they were getting a free water well out in the desert. That would be something they could use for irrigation or crops or whatever.

But it turns out that a lot of these wells maybe weren’t converted properly. And so now they’re they’re blowing out, essentially, so all of the minerals or other toxic chemicals that are coming out of these wells are contaminating the land that they’re on.

Well, I want to make sure I understand something. These oil and gas wells, from what I understand you saying, didn’t produce oil or gas. So what are their dangers?

The danger comes from the unique sort of geology of the region. Because they never hit oil and gas doesn’t mean there’s not other stuff below the surface of the rock. It’s, you know, quite complicated and, in talking to some of the actual geologists and stuff that do work on this, there’s a variety of different factors – essentially like the pressure inside of the wells combined with other minerals or other sort of compounds in there, that that’s sort of what’s causing this problem now. 

Seems like these issues would fall under the jurisdiction of the Railroad Commission, which is the agency that’s in charge of Texas oil and gas regulation. But you report they’re not the ones dealing with these P-13 wells. Why not? And who is?

Right. So the Railroad Commission’s argument, when you go back and listen to any of the sort of testimony they’ve provided to legislators, for example, their position is very firmly that these are not oil and gas wells anymore, right? That when they were converted to water wells, they are no longer the problem of the Railroad Commission because they’re water wells, they’re not really gas wells. Obviously, the folks that have to deal with the problem disagree with that because the Railroad Commission, in many cases, you can find the paper trail that the wells were initially drilled as oil and gas wells. A lot of them have API numbers which identify them as oil and gas wells.

So even if later on there was a form that sort of officially converted it to a water well on paper, it’s essentially the same problems that you see at some of these other abandoned oil and gas wells. But for the P-13 wells, and other wells that were converted, you can’t get any sort of federal or state money to clean them up as you might if they were still classified as oil and gas wells.

Well, is there anyone then responsible for overseeing the issues that arise with these wells?

Yeah. So in Pecos County, for example, it has become the problem of the local groundwater conservation district because these wells are sort of contaminating that supply. And it’s an issue that they’ve now been told is their problem. But, you know, it’s a local agency that doesn’t necessarily have the expertise or funding, and that’s really the main problem, right? You need thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, depending on the full scale of the problem.

And, you know, the sort of most infamous case is Boehmer Lake out in West Texas, which is kind of described as a lake in the middle of the desert. But it’s all briny salt water that’s coming up from underground. And the local district just does not have the kind of money it would need to fix that. But, because they can’t ask the state to fund that through the Railroad Commission’s abandoned well clean-up funds, it’s sort of a dead end and there’s no real way to address the problem.

What are landowners that have these abandoned wells on their property saying about the status quo, and is there any push for a solution?

Yeah. So in the case of Schuyler Wight, who we interviewed for this story, he has spent a lot of his own money to fix the wells – hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix some of these wells. Again, asking the state for money because there is funding set aside for this, you know, I think landowners would say that that would be a more fair deal. Because they’ve sort of been stuck with a problem that they weren’t fully aware of when they bought the land and maybe took on these wells on their property.

But yeah, I mean, the solution so far has been that a lot of these folks are having to clean them up on their own. The Railroad Commission might provide information about contractors they can work with or other folks who can sort of make sure that it’s all being done up to standard. But the financial cost is pretty much being borne by the landowners.

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