Forgotten oil and gas wells linger, releasing toxic chemicals


CRANE, Texas (AP) – Rusty pipes litter the sand fields of Ashley Williams Watt’s ranch in windswept West Texas. Corroded skeletons are all that are left of hundreds of abandoned oil wells. Unable to produce useful amounts of oil or gas, wells were plugged with cement decades ago.

But something strange is happening underground, where Watt once played among mesquite trees and hares. The wells seem to disconnect on their own. They spread dangerous chemicals in his fields.

She first found crude oil bubbling from an abandoned well. Then another well seeped from pools of produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction containing toxic chemicals.

“I watch this well literally spit salt water into my water table, then I have to come home at night, and I’m sweaty and tired and smelly, and I take the shower and I turn on the shower and I look at him, and I think, is this shower going to kill me? says Watt.



According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells exist in the United States. About a third were plugged with cement to prevent leaks. Most have not been plugged in at all.

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Many sinks release methane, a greenhouse gas containing about 86 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide over two decades. Some are the leakage of chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into groundwater.

Regulators do not know the whereabouts of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells, as many of them were drilled before modern record keeping and plugging rules were established. They are a silent threat, threatening to explode or contaminate drinking water.

In recent years, abandoned wells have been discovered on the Navajo Nation, where a hiker came across wells oozing fluid that smelled of motor oil; in Colorado, where a basement exploded, killing two men after methane leaked from an abandoned pipeline; and in Wyoming, where a school closed after air tests revealed high levels of benzene and carbon dioxide.

President Joe Biden wants to spend billions to plug the wells. But Congress is unlikely to allocate enough money to seriously tackle the problem.

“If, suddenly, we could switch to all green renewable energies, that’s good, but these sinks are not disappearing; they will always be there, ”said Mary Kang, assistant professor at McGill University.



After the discoveries on Watt’s ranch, traces of benzene appeared in the well that supplies his cattle with drinking water. Chevron, which owned two of the recently disconnected oil wells, began hauling potable water by truck as its crews attempted to fix the leaks. But Watt feared his animals had consumed contaminated water. So she had her 600 head of cattle transported to another part of her ranch.

Although Chevron officials maintained that the cattle could return safely, Watt disagreed.

She is haunted by the memory of crude oil bubbling in the toilet bowl on her family’s ranch as a teenager. Horrified, they moved on to another well, but never found the source of the leak.

Representatives for Chevron said the company is committed to plugging the two wells that recently caused leaks.

But Watt is concerned that the additional wells will deteriorate, and Chevron does not plan to check its other wells. If Watt were to inform Chevron of another well leak, “if we have to take responsibility, we will and we will do it right by the landowner,” said Catie Mathews, spokesperson for the company. .

Coming from a long line of cattle ranchers, Watt never thought she would lead this fight. She graduated from the US Naval Academy and worked in intelligence for the Marines. Even after earning an MBA from Harvard, she returned to the ranch.

“My family story,” Watt said, “is a story of the land, to say the least.”



The first successful commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, but few detailed records have survived this first oil boom.

Pennsylvania has located about 8,700 orphaned wells, most of them disconnected. Yet based on historical photos and surveys, Pennsylvania estimates between 100,000 and 560,000 additional disconnected wells in the state.

“We’re not plugging fast enough to keep pace with the sinks we find,” said Seth Pelepko, environmental program manager at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Some states have hired well hunters who use drones and metal detectors. On his Texas ranch, Watt found a patch of dark land using a drone. The sand there is dark and smells of petroleum. Watt’s worry is the water below. Without it, she and her longtime ranch foreman and his wife – and their cattle – cannot live here. Water is the lifeblood of this place and all of West Texas.



In addition to polluting groundwater, wells accelerate global warming. According to a study cited by the EPA, disconnected and abandoned wells in the United States released 5,000 times more methane than plugged wells.

Many states require companies to plug wells that are being operated and post bonds in bankruptcy, but those bonds do not cover the cost. In 2018, oil-producing states spent $ 45 million to plug orphan wells, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Wyoming and North Dakota have funneled millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds to plug abandoned oil and gas wells.

Watt suspects that the rare cancer that killed his mother may have been linked to wells leaking toxic chemicals on his ranch. She will never know for sure. More than anything, she wants justice for the land, her cattle and the inheritance her family left her. It was there that she spread the ashes of her parents.

“My biggest fear when I lay down every night, even before this well was unplugged, if I was doing something to screw up the history of this ranch, it’s still being writing?” Watt asked.

“What if this story ends with me?” “


Bussewitz reported from New York. Irvine, who is based in Chicago, reported from Texas.


Journalists can be contacted at @cbussewitz and @irvineap.

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