A recent report from the West Virginia Legislative Auditor regarding the state’s Office of Oil and Gas is very disturbing. Among other things, the Auditor found that the state is not enforcing the laws pertaining to abandoned oil and gas wells. According to the Auditor, there are 13,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in West Virginia, but the state cannot identify the owners of 36 percent of them. And 44 percent are owned by companies that do not have a compliance agreement with the state.
Why are abandoned wells such a problem? Among other things, they can provide a migration pathway for frack fluid or other contaminants to reach groundwater.
The Auditor found that the state is not requiring operators to plug abandoned wells, and that the wells are typically not inspected for hazards to the public or the environment. The number of abandoned wells is increasing—not decreasing in West Virginia. What is more, the Auditor found that the state’s database of wells has a lot of missing or inconsistent information.
If a responsible party cannot be located, the state is supposed to properly clean up and plug the well. In West Virginia, however, even if a well is not plugged, the state categorizes it as such--without determining the risk to the environment or if the well is leaking contaminants to groundwater or surfacewater.
Regarding these abandoned wells, the Auditor concluded that: "Collectively they present a potentially significant environmental and safety threat."
State regulators admit they cannot properly oversee the oil and gas industry in West Virginia. The Chief of the state’s oil and gas office said: "We certainly would recognize that the office has been understaffed and underfunded for a number of years."
Of course, this is a problem everywhere. I have blogged before about the problem of abandoned wells littering the landscape and causing drinking water contamination. There are an estimated 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States.
The oil and gas industry should be required to clean up its old messes before it takes actions that can create new ones.