TEXAS VIEW: Poisonous abandoned oil wells are all over North Texas

THE POINT: State must make sure it receives $344 million in federal money to plug troublesome orphan wells.

Tens of thousands of dangerous and abandoned oil wells pierce the Texas landscape.

Because they were never plugged by their owners, some now emit harmful methane into the air, litter the surrounding area with old, rusty equipment and leach toxic chemicals into groundwater.

But before you assume these so-called orphan wells are just West Texas’ problem, think again.

We found hundreds of them right here in North Texas counties, mostly around Stephenville, Corsicana, Gainesville and Decatur. So it’s good news to us that the federal government has recently given the Texas Railroad Commission $25 million to plug these troublesome wells as part of its massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The Railroad Commission is eligible to receive up to $344 million for plugging, remediation and restoration, as long as it meets federal requirements. We urge the state regulatory agency, which we have long worried is too cozy with the oil and gas industry, to work with the U.S. Department of Interior to receive every penny of these much-needed funds. And we call on the commission to do more to hold well owners accountable for their drilling operations, from start to finish.

The commission this month began using the federal funds to plug 800 orphan wells on its list of more than 8,000 that have long since stopped producing oil, but whose owners can either not be found or have declared bankruptcy. Basically these drillers skipped town, leaving the cleanup to the taxpayer, more specifically the state.

Our review of that list turned up 129 in Erath County, 107 in Navarro County and 68 in Cooke County. Grayson and Wise counties each had less than a dozen.

The 800 wells being fixed by federal funds are in addition to those the commission has already taken care of in recent years. Since 1983, it has plugged more than 40,000 wells, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, about 1,100 were plugged by the end of July at a cost of about $29 million.

Troubling us, however, is that even though the railroad commission is busy plugging wells, more are continuously being orphaned because of the commission’s own flawed policies. According to the watchdog group, Commission Shift, reform is needed to prevent additional orphaning.

Among its recommendations are to check the environmental compliance of companies seeking drilling and operating permits. Another is to make sure bonds provided by the operators are sufficient to clean up abandoned wells in the event of “dining and dashing on Texas resources.”.

We think these and other policy changes that would require the oil industry to clean up after itself make good sense and are long overdue.

Dallas Morning News