‘Nobody really knows what you’re supposed to do’: Leaking, exploding abandoned wells wreak havoc in West Texas

Bill Wight looks at the well that leaked enormous volumes of saltwater on his property. It took crews over a month to seal the well and stop the leak. Credit: Sarah M. Vasquez for The Texas Tribune

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune, and Martha Pskowski, Inside Climate News

IMPERIAL Mounds of dirt towered over Bill Wight, who stared helplessly at the piles that had once been pasture for his cattle.

After a few moments, he turned his head and surveyed a vast pool of water that had spilled over his land after an abandoned well exploded in early December. The water that sprang from the forgotten hole drilled searching for oil or water contained so much salt that it scrubbed the life off the land. It decimated the soil.

A rancher who spent a decade tending to the sprawls of this West Texas ranch, Wight was suddenly a stranger in his own land.

“Nobody really knows what you’re supposed to do about something like this,” Wight said in January.

The massive pool of salt water on Wight’s ranch is the latest man-made disaster resulting from abandoned oil and water wells across the state. The incident here offers a reminder of the ambitious work that Texas faces mapping and securing thousands of wells left behind by oil and gas companies over a century of drilling across the state.

It also highlights an uneven approach to environmental cleanup by the state’s Railroad Commission, critics say. The commission is tasked with regulating the state’s oil and gas sector. It has millions of dollars to plug orphan wells. However, the three-member elected body has fought with groundwater districts and landowners about who is responsible for plugging certain wells.

Complicating the effort are thousands of undocumented wells, like the one that erupted on Wight’s land. With no record of its existence, it’s difficult to determine who is responsible for securing the well.

Despite there being no record of the well that erupted on Wight’s ranch, the commission paid $2.5 million to plug it and clean up the spill to “ensure safety,” a spokesperson said. The spokesperson said the commission is seeking to identify the person or company responsible for drilling it.

Left untreated, these wells threaten the region’s groundwater supply and vegetation used to feed cattle.

Texas has plugged wells for decades, but the urgency has increased in recent years as orphaned wells in the Permian Basin began to leak salt water and, in some cases, hazardous liquids.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2021, included a $4.7 billion nationwide injection to plug orphan wells on public and private lands. Texas received $25 million in 2022 and an additional $80 million in January. The commission operates a separate state plugging program for which it requested $63 million for 2024 and 2025. In fiscal year 2023, Texas plugged 1,754 wells with state funds and 730 wells with federal funds.

Meanwhile, scientists and regulators are scrambling to determine the cause of the leaks, geysers and blowouts.

“If you can identify the problem earlier, it will be cost-saving,” said Zhong Lu, a geophysicist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Railroad Commission touts swift response

Wight reported the blow-out to the commission on Dec. 7. Inspectors arrived later that day.

The first inspection report indicated that water covered an area of 300 square feet and was a foot deep in some places. The next day, inspectors reported roughly 14,000 gallons were flowing out of the ground every hour, according to reports obtained by Inside Climate News and The Texas Tribune. The average American family of four consumes 12,000 gallons of water a month, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the next month, commission staff visited daily and recorded the mounting costs of containing the water. Trucks began to haul it away. Water vacuumed up at the site was then transported to saltwater disposal facilities and injected back into the ground at a different site.

Inspection reports during January indicated there was ongoing difficulty in plugging the well. But at the commission’s Jan. 30 meeting, a staff member made an unusual public presentation about their effort at Wight’s property and said the agency had the well plugged.

The Railroad Commission of Texas built similar pits in the surrounding area to collect the leaking water and haul it offsite. Credit: Sarah M. Vasquez for The Texas Tribune

Wight is content with the plugging job, particularly because he didn’t have to pay for it, but worries about more water seeping out in other parts of the ranch and region.

“I’m more concerned about the rest of the area,” he said.

Saltwater flooding clusters in the Permian Basin

The commission has not always been so quick to act on abandoned wells, frustrating groundwater officials and landowners.

Ty Edwards, general manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, which serves the residents of Pecos County, said the response to the blowout on Wight’s land proves that the commission can plug wells it previously ignored. The groundwater district has documented leaking abandoned wells and taken legal action against the Railroad Commission to compel the agency to plug more wells in the district.

However, the commission has said it does not have jurisdiction over some of these wells because there is no record they ever produced oil. Under state law, landowners are responsible for plugging costs of water wells. There are no state programs to assist landowners in plugging water wells though some groundwater districts can help with the costs.

Edwards said that in order to plug a well, the commission expects him to “prove beyond the shadow of a doubt” that it produced oil or gas.

“But they’ll go plug a well with no documents at all in Crane County,” he said. “I don’t understand how they can do that.”

The commission said it relies on a prioritization system to determine what wells to plug first.

Ten miles southwest of Wight’s land, an abandoned well in Pecos County created a body of water now known as Lake Boehmer. It began to form about two decades ago and now is a half-mile wide.

Despite public protest, the commission said that because Lake Boehmer was formed by a water well, it was not the agency’s responsibility.

Whether the wells were drilled for oil or water, they can threaten groundwater resources.

Bill Wight on his ranch in Crane County. Wight purchased the property over a decade ago, hoping to leave a legacy for his family to inherit. Credit: Sarah M. Vasquez for The Texas Tribune

The San Antonio Testing Laboratory tested samples of the water spewing on Wight’s ranch on behalf of the commission, finding it contained 0.05 milligrams per liter of benzene, a widely known carcinogen. That’s 10 times the EPA’s maximum allowable level for drinking water. Benzene is a chemical found mostly in crude oil and gasoline.

Traces of benzene in Wight’s spill were the only chemical suggesting that the well could have been drilled for oil and gas, the commission said in a statement.

The commission said it has not tested the groundwater at Wight’s ranch for contamination.

“If they actually check it with any basic analysis, we’re going to find some issues,” Edwards said.

Between 1993 and 2008, orphaned wells contaminated Texas’ groundwater 30 times, according to a 2011 report by the Ground Water Protection Council. A 2017 study in the Eagle Ford shale in South Texas found that leaking wells could create a pathway for groundwater contamination if the right conditions exist. In a 2023 paper, scientists said leaking wells in the Permian Basin were a growing threat to water sources and human health.

“We’re able to prevent [groundwater contamination],” said David Alleman, of the Department of Energy’s Office of Resource Sustainability. “And if it’s happening now, we’re able to stop that by plugging these wells.”

Trying to avert the next flood

The blowout on Wight’s land shows that if wells remain unattended, they can pose serious environmental risks. Finding and plugging them is a monumental task.

Undocumented wells are a byproduct of lax record keeping in the earliest days of the oil and gas industry, according to a federal report that documented 117,000 known orphaned wells.

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission estimated in a 2021 report that there are between 310,000 and 800,000 undocumented orphaned wells nationwide. The Department of Energy is funding research on undocumented orphaned wells.

Hari Viswanathan, an Earth and Environmental Sciences fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said they are locating orphaned wells using drones, methane sensors, magnetometers, and other tools.

“There is a lot of cutting-edge science,” he said. “What we have found is there’s no silver bullet.”

Cause of blowouts perplexes experts

Finding wells is only part of the puzzle. Researchers and local groundwater experts are piecing together what is causing wells that were abandoned decades ago to blow out or leak now.

The high levels of salt water left a white tint on the soil on Bill Wight’s property. Credit: Sarah M. Vasquez for The Texas Tribune

Zhong Lu has studied sinkholes, earthquakes and subsidence — the gradual sinking of the ground — in the Permian Basin. Layers of limestone and salt formations make the surface vulnerable to the intensive drilling from the oil and gas industry, according to Lu’s research.

He and several colleagues used satellite data to measure how the ground moves in the Permian Basin. Then, they use drilling and injection records to determine what underground forces contribute to the movement on the surface.

In January 2022, a well break less than one mile west of the blowout on Wight’s land created a towering geyser. Chevron eventually plugged the well, which its predecessor Gulf Oil may have drilled decades earlier. The exact origin of the well, much like on Wight’s land, was unclear.

Lu is conducting ongoing research on that blowout along with SMU’s Jinwoo Kim and Vamshi Karanam. Lu said their preliminary findings indicate the blowouts are likely related to saltwater injection wells used to dispose of water left over from fracking.

They wrote in a memo that water is possibly moving from injection wells through an underground channel toward the site of the 2022 blowout. Lu — who has not studied the event on Wight’s ranch — recommended more widespread monitoring of surface level changes in the Permian Basin.

Edwards, of the groundwater district, doesn’t see an end in sight. “You’re going to find this is going to happen again within a few months,” he said. “We’re going to have another well blowout. I hate to say that.”

It’s been roughly three months since tens of thousands of gallons of salt water furiously flooded Wight’s property. On a recent February day, he strolled past strewn steel pipes left over from the clean-up. The water had mostly dried out. The soil shimmered a white hue under the sun, resembling the white sands of New Mexico — scenes of the aftermath.

Around him, piles of dirt.

Wight was relieved to see the water gone and the trucking activity dying down as he returned to the quiet life of ranching. There will be pumpjacks, trucks and disposal tanks on his land the way they have for as long as he’s been in the ranch. The oil fields would always be a part of West Texas.

But he won’t have to deal with them. Not directly, at least, and he doesn’t intend to. He isn’t an activist or a politician. The thought of being any of the two repel him. He’s just a rancher, he said.

Bill Wight walks on his property, ravaged by rupturing salt water from an abandoned well. Credit: Sarah M. Vasquez for The Texas Tribune

Sometimes, the 76-year-old wonders whether there would even be a ranch to leave behind for his family. He’s concerned about the rest of the area, knowing water is still underground trying to find its way out, feeling powerless against its force.

For now, he just worries about the soil.

“I’ll just have to wait years for the grass to grow back,” he said. “I may not live that long.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/28/abandoned-oil-wells-west-texas-railroad-commission/.

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