LULING — Amid the dry weeds on a 470-acre ranch here, a rusted head of steel pokes up, a vestige of an oil well abandoned decades ago. Across the field stand two huge, old wooden oil tanks, one of them tilting like a smokestack on the Titanic.
“Basically I get 61 acres here I can’t do anything with,” said Stuart Carter, the landowner, who is in a legal dispute with the oil producer operating on part of his ranch over who should clean up the site. Carter fears that the oil well, probably dating to the 1930s, could create a pathway for saltwater or oil to contaminate the groundwater.
Abandoned oil field equipment is a common problem in Texas, which is home to vast numbers of old wells that were never properly sealed. Some remain from the heady decades of the early- to mid-20th century, before current standards kicked in. In recent decades, regulators have worked to plug the old wells so they do not act as a conduit for liquid pollutants to enter groundwater. But some fear that the recent surge in oil drilling, brought about by the modern practice of hydraulic fracturing, will set off worrisome encounters with the old wells.
“Not every unplugged well leads to pollution, but a high percentage of wells that are left unplugged do present pollution hazards,” said Scott Anderson, an oil and gas expert based in Austin with the Environmental Defense Fund.
A few decades ago, Texas policy makers moved aggressively to address the problem of abandoned wells. They created a program, financed by drilling fees, to properly seal abandoned wells. More recently, lawmakers tightened cleanup requirements for other equipment like abandoned tanks.
Tens of thousands of abandoned wells have been plugged using money from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas drilling, but more exist. As of late April, about 8,400 wells still need to be plugged, according to Christi Craddick, one of three elected officials who head the commission.
“Clearly the industry realizes that we need to plug the wells, because they could be a pollution threat” and allow underground fluids to migrate, she said, adding that the commission works to plug the most problematic old wells first.
The Railroad Commission estimates that two to three cases of groundwater contamination have been caused by abandoned wells since 2008, said Ramona Nye, a commission spokeswoman.
Some say hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process of breaking up oil or gas-rich rock by blasting water, sand and chemicals, has created additional concerns about the abandoned wells.
“If the fracture intersects that unplugged well, then it could easily find a fast path up the drinking water table,” said Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund. However, many fracking operations occur below the bottom of the old wells.
Underground disposal wells, which are used to store wastewater from fracking operations, are another source of concern. The Railroad Commission requires that disposal well operators survey a quarter-mile radius around their site for non-plugged wells to ensure that pollution will not have a pathway to the surface.
Ed Walker, the general manager of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District in South Texas, said that a few years ago, water came up out of an abandoned 1940s-era well that lay slightly more than a quarter-mile from a disposal well.
“It was just an old, abandoned well that was bubbling up some water, and of course, the water wasn’t real pretty,” he said.
The Railroad Commission arrived quickly to plug the well, Walker said. There is no state list of such episodes.
The commission is expected to begin work this summer on tightening its rules for the construction of disposal wells. Walker would like disposal well operators to be required to plug abandoned wells in a wider radius, of a half-mile.
Finding the abandoned wells can be hard, and the Railroad Commission does not know where all of them are. Some metal was removed from the old wells during World War II, so they can be hard to locate, said Ralph Hoelscher, a farmer near San Angelo.
“If the casing’s been pulled, then a metal detector doesn’t do any good,” he said.
Plugging old wells is expensive, and costs have risen as the oil industry gets busier, said Debbra Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
Last month, the three railroad commissioners approved contracts for plugging wells that ranged from $30,000 per well, in Liberty County, east of Houston, to $128,000 per well, in Jim Hogg and Webb counties in South Texas.
Plugging abandoned wells sitting in shallow water — a priority of the commission, Craddick said — is costlier still, and can require scuba divers and barges. In the 2012 fiscal year, the Railroad Commission spent more than $170,000 apiece to plug a dozen of those wells. The money comes from a fund for oilfield cleanup and regulation, and lawmakers recently voted to raise the cap on the fund to $30 million from $20 million. (That bill, House Bill 3309, is now on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk.)
Wells continue to be abandoned sometimes, despite new regulations.
“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, some unscrupulous operators will walk off from a well,” said Ben Shepperd, the president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, who said such actions were rare. The industry has an incentive to plug abandoned wells, Shepperd said, because the old wells can lower underground pressure and make it harder to recover oil and gas from wells nearby. Drillers plug most wells in Texas, and state lawmakers are trying to make sure that they do more.
Carter, the landowner, said that on his ranch, the Railroad Commission plugged one well four years ago after it began leaking oil, and the commission has another on its list.
But a 61-acre patch, where one old, unplugged well and some abandoned cement and other equipment lie, has proved a subject of contention. Carter says the oil producer is responsible for cleaning up some of the old equipment. The producer, Michael Gyllenband of M & J Production Company, says that the drilling relics predate his ownership of the mineral-rights lease, an old lease he acquired in 1990, and that he is not responsible for them.
Gyllenband says he is an environmentally conscious oil producer. “I respond to the Railroad Commission and do absolutely what is required,” he said.