Field Notes: What we know — pollution from marginal and inactive wells

Colorado has a problem with pollution from oil and gas wells–including neglected and poorly maintained ones that produce very little or fluctuate between producing and sitting inactive for months on end.  Another problem is that nobody can say just how big of a pollution impact these marginal wells have. 

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is at work drafting rules for what it calls “financial assurance,” which is the task of guaranteeing that the oil and gas industry bears the financial burden of cleaning up and remediating the pollution from their activities. The rulemaking effort is shining a light on the troubling reality that there are some major unanswered questions when it comes to marginally producing and inactive wells, not the least of which is how significant the impacts of their emissions are on residents’ health and the climate. 

That is why Earthworks has begun to focus some of our field investigations into these marginal and inactive well sites. 

Chronic Pollution in Jackson County, CO

In May, we conducted fieldwork in Jackson County, CO and looked at close to a dozen marginal wells on BLM land just north of Walden (link to Jackson County vlog). We found concerning emissions at two facilities and filed complaints with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). One of those facilities, as it turns out, is a chronic polluter and an illustration of CDPHE’s failure to protect communities from pollution. We also investigated this site in the fall of 2020 and documented similar pollution that prompted us to file a complaint. Upon further digging into inspection reports, it didn’t surprise us to learn that the K.P Kauffman Dwinell Production Battery HAS a long rap sheet of compliance problems. 

5 More Marginal Wells in Routt & Rio Blanco Counties

In June, we investigated  5 marginal wells sites in and around the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Routt and Rio Blanco Counties (link to Western Slope vlog). At these sites we documented pollution venting from tanks and leaking from wellheads and filed complaints with CDPHE. 

Two of these wells, formerly belonging to Stehle Oil Company, were orphaned wells, which means that they have become wards of the state and the public will now be on the hook for the cost of plugging the wells and cleaning up the sites. Orphan status occurs when operators walk away from their responsibilities and, over time, no responsible party can be identified. In some instances, as in the case of Stehle, the state may declare wells as orphaned because a known company is financially unable to cover the costs of dealing with its own pollution. This is in contrast to abandoned wells, which are no longer producing and may be neglected, but the operator is known and still legally obligated to deal with the site.

One of these orphaned wells has been inactive since 2019 and the other has not produced since 2014 – over half a decade – and yet we found the tanks on both sites to be venting pollution.  

Implications for COGCC & the Need for Strong Financial Assurance rule

In total, we filed pollution complaints at 11 facilities between both rounds of field work, seven of which were marginal or inactive well sites. We will continue to prioritize investigating these sites, yet we can already say with some confidence that pollution at these sites is not uncommon and is symptomatic of larger maintenance and compliance issues. 

Both findings have implications for the COGCC.  Poorly maintained, low-producing sites are most at risk of becoming orphaned wells that are the responsibility of the state of Colorado and therefore Colorado taxpayers to clean up. 

A strong, Financial Assurance rule that requires operators to pay the full cost of cleaning up their wells and incentivize oil and gas operators to properly plug and abandon wells when they are no longer productive will save taxpayers money and protect health and climate while doing so. 

Take Action Now to demand strong rules for polluter clean-up!