SOURCE: High Country News

DATE: January 16, 2018

SNIP: The 50 or so wells Atom left behind comprise Colorado’s largest-ever “orphaned well” case, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But it’s not an isolated problem. Companies that go out of business, become bankrupt, or, like Atom, simply ignore the rules, tend to skip out on cleanup and land restoration. And since bond amounts set by states and the federal government rarely if ever cover real-world cleanup costs, it can be cheaper for a company to forfeit a bond than to follow reclamation rules.

Orphaned wells are more likely than properly plugged “abandoned” wells to leak pollutants, including methane gas, which can contaminate groundwater and even trigger explosions. So it’s troubling that the number of such wells in the West has soared. A downturn in energy prices starting back in 2008 has led energy companies to orphan thousands of wells across Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. States are struggling even to tally them, let alone remediate them. Officially, Colorado has 244 orphaned wells on its books, but state officials estimate another 400 have yet to be located. And with a new drilling boom tapping deep shale formations along Colorado’s urban Front Range, some worry that the next bust will saddle the public with thousands more.

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are currently 63 financially “distressed” operators in the state, who collectively own almost 4,000 wells. These companies have either missed required safety tests or aren’t producing much, signs that they may be running out of money and therefore more likely to abandon their sites. If even a fraction of those companies become deadbeats, the state’s problems will quickly multiply. Without broad action, says Foote, “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”