An estimated 1,700 oil and gas wells sit abandoned in New Mexico, potentially spewing pollution in the state’s land and air.
Wells can be left unused and unmonitored by energy companies when they are deemed financially unviable.
During the volatile oil and gas industry’s frequent ups and downs, oil-rich areas like New Mexico’s southeast Permian Basin region can see more wells going into service and later abandoned or “orphaned” in industry terms.
To address this issue, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) introduced the Abandoned Well Remediation Research and Development Act to provide federal funds used to find and identify abandoned oil and gas wells and track their impacts on the environment, while also developing a process for plugging and restoring the land to its natural state.
The Act would amend the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which contained provisions from Lujan’s previous Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells (REGROW) Act that provided about $4.3 billion for cleanup of the wells on state and private land.
The REGROW Act also earmarked another $400 million for the work on federal and Tribal lands, and $32 million for associated research.
But since the infrastructure bill was passed in November 2021, Lujan said more research was needed to devise methods of finding wells in need of plugging.
If passed, the latest bill would appropriate gradually increasing federal funds over the next five fiscal years.
Fiscal Year 2023 would see $30 million for the work, followed by $31.24 million in FY 2024, $32.5 million in FY 2025, $33.75 million in FY 2026 and $35 million in FY 2027, according to the bill’s initial text.
Dollars would go to a variety of activities including developing remote sensor technologies to identify abandoned wells, studying methane emissions from the wells and impacts to local water supplies, devising clean up and well plugging processes, and repurposing abandoned wells for other uses like geothermal power or carbon capture and storage.
Lujan said abandoned wells continue to pose environmental and safety concerns in his state and across the U.S., meaning more funding was needed to support solutions.
“In New Mexico and across the country, abandoned wells pose serious environmental harm and public health risks that threaten the health of our communities,” he said upon introducing the bill Wednesday.
“That’s why our REGROW Act works to cut methane emissions and lessen public health risks, but more research and development is needed to help identify the thousands of abandoned wells nationwide.”
The work could create more jobs in New Mexico, Lujan said, taking advantage of an already large extraction workforce in the state that known as the U.S.’ second-largest producer of crude oil.
“I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to build upon our work in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to further develop technology to identify and plug abandoned wells to prevent public health risks, create jobs, and boost economic growth,” he said.
Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said the funding was needed to properly locate the wells and properly restore the land.
He said agencies like the federal agencies like Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy are responsible for addressing the wells and will be bolstered to do so by the added funding.
“Inactive, unplugged wells that have not been properly plugged or reclaimed are a major problem throughout New Mexico, on both public and private lands,” he said. “It is our hope that this funding to DOE will help BLM and state officials identify inactive wells that need to be cleaned-up immediately.”
Research was already underway in New Mexico using the initial $30 million from the REGROW Act contained in the infrastructure bill, as Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories joined a consortium on government agencies and institutions seeking to map out abandoned wells across the country and their impacts on the environment.
The group included the two labs along with the DOE, Department of Interior and Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkley national laboratories.
“Information about its ownership and construction have been lost,” said Hari Viswanathan, lead scientist at Los Alamos. “The goal is to document them so they can be remediated and plugged.”
The problem was extensive especially in the Permian Basin oilfields, according to recent research from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that showed southeast New Mexico counties led the state in abandoned wells.
Chaves County had the most in the state at 935 orphaned wells, followed by Lea County with 828 wells and Eddy County with 403 wells, read the EDF’s report released Dec. 2.
The report released Dec. 2 found 2,391 undocumented abandoned wells throughout the state.
Wells were also found by the EDF abandoned in the northwest San Juan Basin in McKinley and San Juan counties.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.