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Forgotten oil and gas wells linger, leaking toxic chemicals

CRANE, Texas (AP) — Rusted pipes litter the sandy fields of Ashley Williams Watt’s cattle ranch in windswept West Texas. The corroded skeletons are all that remain of hundreds of abandoned oil wells that were drilled long before her family owned the land. The wells, unable to produce any useful amounts of oil or gas, were plugged with cement decades ago and forgotten.

But something eerie is going on beneath the land, where Watt once played among the mesquite trees, jackrabbits and javelina and first drove the dirt roads at 10 years old. One by one, the wells seem to be unplugging themselves. They’re leaking dangerous chemicals that are seeping into groundwater beneath her ranch.

Now 35, Watt believes the problems on her ranch, which sprawls across the oil-rich fields of the Permian Basin, are getting worse. In April, she found crude oil bubbling from an abandoned well. In June, an oil company worker called to alert her that another well was seeping pools of salty produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas extraction containing toxic chemicals.

“I’m watching this well literally just spew brine water into my water table, and then I have to go home at night, and I’m sweaty and tired and smelly, and I get in the shower, and I turn on the shower and I look at it, and I think, is this shower going to kill me?” Watt said.

A GROWING THREAT

The crisis unfolding on Watt’s 75,000-acre ranch offers a window on a growing problem for the oil industry and the communities and governments that are often left to clean up the mess. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells exist in the United States. About a third of them were plugged with cement, which is considered the proper way to prevent harmful chemical leaks. But most haven’t been plugged at all.

Many of the wells are releasing methane, a greenhouse gas containing about 86 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide over two decades. Some are leaking chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into fields and groundwater.

Regulators don’t know where hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells are because many of them were drilled before modern record-keeping and plugging rules were established. They are a silent menace, threatening to explode or contaminate drinking water and leaking atmosphere-warming fumes each day that they’re unplugged. Without records of their whereabouts, it’s impossible to grasp the magnitude of the pollution or health problems they may be causing.

The problem isn’t confined to Texas. In recent years, abandoned wells have been found under brush deep in forests and beneath driveways in suburbia. On the Navajo Nation, a hiker stumbled across wells oozing brown and black fluid that smelled like motor oil. In Colorado, a basement exploded, killing a man and his brother-in-law who were repairing a water heater, after an abandoned flowline had leaked methane into the house.

A Wyoming school shut down for more than a year after students and teachers complained of headaches for weeks. Air quality tests revealed high levels of benzene and carbon dioxide, most likely from a nearby abandoned oil well. A garage in Pennsylvania exploded — a consequence, the state suspects, of abandoned gas wells.

Experts believe the problem is getting worse. Even before the viral pandemic, producers were declaring bankruptcy and abandoning oil fields after spending more on fracking operations than they ultimately could afford. Then the coronavirus halted travel, obliterating demand for fuel and leaving less money to properly plug wells.

President Joe Biden, who has built much of his domestic policy around a transition to cleaner energy sources, wants to spend billions to put unemployed wildcatters to work plugging the wells. But Congress is unlikely to allocate enough money to seriously confront the issue.

“If, all of a sudden, we could switch to all green renewable energy, that’s great, but these wells don’t disappear; they’re still going to be there,” said Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal who was among the first scientists to call attention to the danger of abandoned wells.

TRACES OF BENZENE

After the discoveries on Watt’s ranch, traces of benzene showed up in the well that supplies her cattle’s drinking water. Chevron, which owned at least two of the oil wells that recently came unplugged, began trucking in drinking water while its crews tried to fix the leaks. But Watt worried that her animals might have consumed contaminated water. So she had her 600 head of cattle hauled off to another part of her ranch.

“At this point,” she said, “I cannot sell my cattle at market in good conscience, because I have no idea what is in them.”

Though Chevron officials maintained that the cattle could safely return, Watt disagreed.

She’s haunted by a memory of crude oil bubbling up in a toilet bowl at her family’s ranch when she was a teenager. Horrified, they turned off the well that supplied their water and switched to another well. They never found the source of the leak.

Representatives for Chevron said the company is committed to re-plugging the two wells that recently sprang leaks.

But Watt fears that dozens of other plugged and abandoned wells on her ranch might be deteriorating, and Chevron has no plans to check its other wells for problems. If Watt should inform Chevron of another leaking well, “if we have to take responsibility, we will and we’ll do the right thing by the landowner,” said Catie Mathews, a company spokeswoman.

Hailing from a long line of cattle ranchers, Watt never thought she’d be fighting this fight. After high school, she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked in intelligence for the Marines. Even after she obtained an MBA from Harvard, she returned to the ranch.

She packs a gun, but only on her own land. Though she’s passionate about protecting it, she doesn’t want to be called an “environmentalist” — that’s a dirty word out here. But she has to save her ranch.

“The story of my family,” Watt said, “is a story of land, if nothing else.”

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