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Abandoned oil and gas wells spread out through New Mexico’s Permian, San Juan basins

New Mexico Abandoned wells

When oil and gas wells are shut down and abandoned, dangers to local communities and the environment linger.

Story Credit: Carlsbad Current-Argus, by Adrian Hedden

Both of New Mexico’s oil-producing regions: the Permian Basin in the southeast and San Juan Basin in the northwest have scores of inactive wells, per a recent study by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and could be running afoul of state law.

The Albuquerque-based environmental group, citing its own data on alleged inactive wells, called on the federal Bureau of Land Management to audit inactive oil and gas wells on federally-leased public land.

The group hoped the audit would show if the wells identified in the Alliance’s study were in compliance, or not, with regulations.

About 6,000 wells across the state were identified as not having produced oil or gas in the last year, per the study, including 2,600 on federal land.

The study pointed to 100 wells it said hadn’t been producing in 15 years.

“Orphaned” wells with no active owner on file, wells that have expired approvals for temporary abandonment, and others with abandonment authorizations were listed in the study.

In the Permian, the wells in question were scattered throughout Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties.

In total, there were 68 orphaned wells and 16 wells with expired abandonment approvals, per the study.

There were also 124 oil and gas leases provided to companies, accounting for 55,792 acres, in the area the study alleged were in violation of abandonment regulations at other facilities in the region.

All 124 leases overlap big game priority areas, per the study, and 15 of the leases overlap possible wilderness areas.

In the northwest San Juan Basin, there were no abandoned wells between San Juan, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties, but there were 42 wells the study alleged had temporary abandonment approval without adequate justification.

Researchers for the study found one well in Rio Arriba where abandonment authorization was expired.

Along with the study and call for an audit of the wells, the Wilderness Alliance contended the BLM should not process or authorize any new applications to permit drill or rights of way needed for oil and gas operations until the agency determines which of its leases in New Mexico were in violation and should be canceled.

Some of the largest operators in both regions owned some of these wells, the study read, including Chevron, Devon Energy, EOG Resources, Hilcorp, Occidental Petroleum and XTO Energy – a subsidiary of ExxonMobil.

Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance said all unused oil and gas wells posed dangers to the environment and local community.

“With the climate and extinction crises worsening, the number of inactive wells in the state is staggering,” he said. “It is our hope that this letter will help BLM officials identify inactive wells that need to be cleaned-up immediately, along with leases that were unlawfully issued to bad actors.”

Allison said the federal government and administration of President Joe Biden should enact reforms to prevent future wells from being abandoned, policies like increasing bonding paid by operators to fund well cleanup and stricter requirements.

“For too long, the oil and gas industry has lined its wallets at the expense of our lands, wildlife, and water sources,” he said. “Given the Biden administration’s commitment to slowing the effects of climate change, now is the time to act.”

Biden’s Interior Department in March announced that $4.7 billion in federal funding was included in the recent infrastructure bill passed into law, with the first $775 million in funding being made available to states – up to $25 million grants – this year.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the federal initiative would help clean up pollution throughout the U.S. in oil-producing states like Haaland’s native New Mexico.

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“We are committed to getting these funds to states and communities as quickly as possible to confront legacy pollution and long-standing environmental injustices that have been allowed to fester for far too long,” Haaland said.

“With so many communities looking forward to this program, we are eager to hear from diverse voices to review and provide feedback on this draft guidance.”

In January, the State of New Mexico announced it was eligible for up to $43.7 million in federal funds for the work, estimating there were up to 1,700 orphaned or abandoned wells throughout the state.

With current funding, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) was able to plug about 50 wells a year, records show but hoped to increase that number “significantly” using the federal dollars.

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Sarah Cottrell Propst, cabinet secretary of the State’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department – the OCD’s parent agency – said the funding would help improve the Department’s ability to address the problem.

“The state’s successful and well-established plugging program will now reach more sites across the state,” Propst said. “These funds will allow us to move quickly to clean up a serious backlog of orphaned wells.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Abandoned oil and gas wells spread out through New Mexico

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