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The Brief: Growth in number of abandoned wells fuels concerns

Texas is home to nearly 300,000 active oil and gas wells. When most wells end their service operators will plug them, limiting pollution threats, and move on. But the state is facing a surge of abandoned drilling sites and dwindling funds to clean them up.

Brackish water flows from an unplugged abandoned well outside of Imperial in Pecos County — one of several in the area likely drilled for oil but later tapped for water.

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The Big Story

Texas, the nation’s petroleum king, is home to nearly 300,000 active oil and gas wells. When most wells end their service, operators will plug them, limiting pollution threats, and move on. But the state is facing a surge of abandoned drilling sites and dwindling funds to clean them up. Here's the story:

• Not every abandoned well threatens groundwater. But in some oilfields, they “can be ticking time bombs,” one hydrologist told the Tribune. And as boom-and-bust cycles continue across Texas drilling fields, walling off water sources from potential contamination will only get harder.

• The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, will plug or repair wells when there is proof they are abandoned. But it says it doesn't have jurisdiction over wells that have been transferred to private landowners for irrigation or water supply use. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it has no plugging responsibilities. Some say that's the key problem: there is nobody claiming responsibility.

• Experts say pollution can fester where no one has looked. Old wells typically offer the biggest threats because freewheeling drillers long ago faced lax standards and used relatively weak materials for casing — meaning the wells do little to guard water from pollutants. Mother Nature also exacts a toll.

• Texas's total orphaned well count eclipsed 10,100 in the 2016 fiscal year — the most since 2007. The list is growing largely because the Railroad Commission struggles to keep plugging at its previous pace. Industry representatives play down the severity of the growing orphaned well count. They say that some orphaned wells in Texas are considered assets with future production value. But the Railroad Commission is making it known that it’s bleeding cash and needs more money for cleanups and other core duties.

What We're Reading

(Links below lead to outside websites; content might be behind paywall)

Planned Parenthood faces Medicaid court battle, ongoing Texas AG investigation, The Dallas Morning News

Texas high-speed rail plan suffers eminent-domain setback in court, The (Fort Worth) Star-Telegram

Fewer jobs in oil patch as automation picks up, Houston Chronicle

Trib Events for the Calendar

•   Trivia Night on Jan. 8 at The Highball 

•   A Conversation with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Jan. 11 at The Austin Club 

•   A Conversation with the University of Houston's Renu Khator on Jan. 12 at The Austin Club

•   A Conversation with Reps. Dustin Burrows & Drew Darby on Jan. 19 at Howard College – West Texas Training Center

•   A Conversation on Mental Health on Jan. 26 at The Austin Club

•   A Conversation with Sen. Kel Seliger & Rep. Brooks Landgraf on Feb. 17 at Odessa College – Saulsbury Campus Center

•   A Conversation with Reps. Senfronia Thompson & James White on March 31 at Prairie View A&M University – W.A. Tempton Memorial Student Center

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