Kansas grapples with growing number of abandoned wells

June 24, 2019 - 4:27 pm
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Kansas residents and environmentalists are calling on oil and gas regulators to address the growing number of abandoned wells over the past five years.

The state is home to 22,000 deserted oil and gas wells, with more than 19,000 of those residing in a 32-county area in eastern Kansas, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

Judith Wells bought property in Douglas County without being informed the land had unplugged wells. Since then, she's been calling on the energy sector's oversight agency, the Kansas Corporation Commission, to deal with operators who abandon wells.

She said some idled wells aren't even listed on the commission's reports submitted to the Legislature. Wells also said the state hardly has the funds to finance the plugging of deserted wells.

"If taxpayers aren't tapped for these problems, the wells will truly sit open and unattended," Wells said.

The state has capped 10,100 wells, as of 2018. But year-to-year plugging has dropped since 2002, when it peaked at 750 wells. From 2015 to 2018, the number fell to less than 300. That's in addition to the number of abandoned wells in the state's inventory growing by 3,000 in 2017.

The Kansas Corporation Commission's annual reports show that a fund established in 1996 to provide money for well plugging isn't adequately keeping pace with the demand.

Commission Chairman Dwight Keen said the agency doesn't have the resources to hold every absconder accountable. Keen said it's difficult to determine who's responsible for some abandoned wells that were drilled decades ago.

Keen added that there aren't many contractors eager to bid on well plugging work in the state.

"It's a difficult challenge, but it is one that we will master. We have to," Keen said. "We're trying as many unique avenues to protect our freshwater resources."

Joe Spease, of the Kansas Sierra Club, said the issue has worsened because of the oil and gas industry's influence in the Legislature and on the commission. He's demanding that regulators hold oil and gas companies accountable for the cost of plugging any well they use. Spease also recommended halting a company's business in the state until its idle well is plugged.

"That can and must be stopped," Spease said.

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