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Free Flowing Problems in the Permian Basin: Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

In the arid lands of West Texas it is easy to imagine that water could be a problem. What is not as easy to imagine is that the problem isn't not enough water, but too much. Abandoned oil and gas wells in the Permian Basin are a real issue, and the problem is growing. Some of these wells are free flowing water from underground formations; this water is really not suitable for human consumption and often not safe for the environment either.

These wells once produced oil and gas, or were used as exploratory drill sites as people searched for oil and gas. They either stopped producing or never produced so were left behind. Some of these were plugged, some were not, and the impacts are being felt on the surface. These wells can emit both methane and hydrogen sulfide, and the water is often many times saltier than ocean water. This puts the environment at risk, and may be putting drinking water supplies at risk. These wells have also caused sinkholes that can destroy infrastructure and pose a risk to public health.

Ok, so let's just plug the wells! Oh, if it were only so simple. Many of these holes are so old that ownership records are murky, often leaving the landowner holding the bag. The Railroad Commission (RRC) has responsibility for some of these wells, but there are a subset of orphaned wells where the paper trail is murky and the RRC claims that they are not responsible. In many cases, when these wells stopped producing oil and started producing water, ownership of the well was offered to be transferred to the landowner as a "free water well." Once this transfer was complete, the well fell out from the RRC's jurisdiction. This has left many landowners in a difficult situation.

There are many complicated issues when it comes to dealing with the abandoned wells but it seems obvious that they need to be dealt with. Adding to the problem is the continued use of injection wells for disposal of fracking material which further pressurizes the system, enabling more of these wells to flow. Clearly something needs to be done, sadly it seems that regulators don't have the resources to begin, and the agency tasked with protecting the land and the people have rules in place that prohibit them from doing so.

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