(Bloomberg) — Ashley Watt is nothing if not a friend of fracking. She’s invested in mines that supply the sand frackers blast into the ground. Her family owns a ranch larger than Manhattan that’s home to hundreds of oil and natural gas wells. Her Twitter handle is “Frac Sand Baroness.”
That’s what made it all the more jarring almost three weeks ago when Watt began publicly railing against one particular oil driller for leaks on her land. Noxious wastewater from oil drilling began leaching across the ground, endangering people and livestock. By her count, the pollution has killed four cows and two calves so far. Chevron Corp., which drilled the 1960s-era wells that polluted Watt’s land, brought in earth-moving equipment and a well-control crew, even though it had sold most of its interests there years ago. It took 10 days to halt the first leak. Given the hundreds of other aging wells dotting the land, it’s done little to put Watt’s mind at ease.
“I am not anti-oil industry,” Watt said in an interview. “That is the economy here. It’s a good business.” At the same the same time, she said, “We have to be responsible stewards. If we can’t do it right here in the Permian Basin, then how can we do it right anywhere? Nobody should let us in if we’re going to act like this.”
And just like that, Watt — whether she liked it or not — became an ally to scores of environmentalists and activists who’ve been warning for years that America is on the verge of an environmental disaster. Long before the advent of shale drilling techniques that fueled the greatest move toward energy independence the nation’s ever seen, conventional oil explorers left the country pierced with millions of defunct wells that are aging by the day and increasingly springing leaks.
“There’s this enormous backlog” of abandoned wells, “and we don’t have financing in place to clean them up,” said Daniel Raimi, a fellow at the non-profit research group Resources for the Future. “We’ve seen very clearly that existing regulatory structures, particularly at the state level, have not properly incentivized companies to clean up their infrastructure.”
There are 3.4 million old crude and gas wells in various states of abandonment across the U.S., an almost 20% increase in the past decade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Less than half of those holes have been plugged, EPA figures showed. In all, the wells are spewing about 7 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere every year, although unplugged wells tend to be 100 times more polluting than their plugged brethren.
Methane releases from abandoned gas wells have been particularly egregious, growing by 40% in the past three decades. As the energy industry pivots away from fossil fuels to combat climate change, the inventory of untended wells will only expand.
Abandoned wells have become so thorny an issue in longtime oil states like Pennsylvania that President Joe Biden included $16 billion in his infrastructure package to put laid-off roughnecks to work plugging old wells and mines. Federal lawmakers including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have meanwhile blasted the Bureau of Land Management for failing to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for plugging millions of abandoned wells on public lands.
In Texas, the nation’s largest source of oil, companies plugged almost 8,900 wells in the last fiscal year, and have sealed another 5,700 so far this fiscal year, according to the Texas Railroad Commission that oversees the oil and natural gas industry. The agency requires cement barriers through sections of a well that go through aquifers, but the commission doesn’t track how many of them spring leaks. The regulator documented more than 500 industry-related spills and accidents last fiscal year, with equipment failure and corrosion listed as the top two causes.
For it’s part, Chevron said in a statement that its priorities on Watt’s property “are protecting people — including Ms. Watt and our workforce onsite, protecting the environment, plugging the well and remediating impacts.” Industry experts estimated the cleanup is costing Chevron more than $250,000 a day, though the company has declined to disclose its expenses. The company also helped Watt relocate 500 cows and trucked in fresh drinking water for her family and ranch workers.
Despite all of Chevron’s efforts, Virginia Palacios, executive director of the watchdog Commission Shift based in Austin, Texas, calls old wells like the ones on Watt’s property “ticking time bombs.” Her group has fought for tougher regulations to ensure drillers continue to monitor their operations long past the day they stop yielding oil.
“We need to plan to monitor these wells in perpetuity,” she said. “Even if you plug these wells, as we have seen in this incident, they can still cause environmental damage and pose a risk to human health.”
Prior to the 1950s, the rules in Texas for taking wells out of service were so vague that they were sometimes plugged with brush, wood, rocks, paper and linen sacks, or any other item that could hold cement, according to a report from the National Petroleum Council, an industry group that advises the U.S. Energy Department. Last year, the railroad commission was sued by Public Citizen and two South Texas landowners over its alleged failure to responsible management of some abandoned, unplugged wells.
“There are hundreds of wells on this ranch alone,” Watt said. “Extrapolating thousands of wells in the Permian Basin, tens of thousands, how many of those are going to collapse? Even if it’s only 1%, that’s going to pollute aquifers and destroy a huge swath of land. That’s enough to make the Permian Basin functionally uninhabitable in 50 years.”
After more than two weeks, the exact cause of the leak is not yet clear but experts hired by Watt pointed to tiny perforations in a cement plug installed in the mid-1990s to permanently take the well out service. It’s a routine industry practice to pour cement down wells when production peters out and they no longer turn a profit. Most of the time, such plugs hold fast.
But with other decades-old wells and pipes leaking on her property, Watt believes an environmental disaster is unfolding not just on her family’s land but also elsewhere in the Permian Basin, the vast oilfield that’s been a drilling hotbed for more than a century. Watt fears that legacy wells, neglected equipment and lax enforcement by state regulators are a recipe for disaster.
“Will this be inhabitable land in 100 years, if all of our old wellbores are collapsing underneath us?,” Watt said after traversing the 22,000-acre ranch in a brown Ford F-150 pickup truck. “I don’t know and, frankly, that’s terrifying,”
The Watt family arrived in remote West Texas early in the 20th century when Ashley’s great-grandfather quit a job at the Fort Worth Stockyards to begin ranching a decade before the first Permian oil boom in the 1920s. In the mid-1990s, her parents bought the nearby Antina property, a swath of sand hills and desert grasslands that provide excellent feed for cattle. Her folks’ ashes are scattered among the dunes.
Roughly a dozen wells are still trickling out crude and gas, while the rest were all plugged decades ago. It’s those legacy wells and the pipelines attached to them that concern Watt. The former U.S. Marine Corps captain who flew drones over Afghanistan is using those skills to scour her land for the telltale signs of other leaks.
Among her findings was a 1950s-era well that’s leaking crude; Chevron is also cleaning up that site. She also found a natural gas pipeline that became exposed when sand dunes shifted and spewed gas underground. In another location, she discovered broken storage equipment that was releasing gas into the atmosphere.
Watt and her attorney Sarah Stogner took to social media to highlight the scope of the pollution. In one Tweet, they showed a cleanup crew’s ad hoc method of slowing a wastewater leak by placing a red plastic bucket atop a length of pipe. Red bucket memes exploded across Twitter’s energy-industry subculture. In another, Watt invited Chevron CEO Mike Wirth to visit and “come get some sand in your Gucci loafers.”
Chevron hired Cudd Well Control, a legendary oilfield outfit famous for snuffing out the late Saddam Hussein’s fiery blowouts in Kuwait, to help with the cleanup.
“It’s important for the Railroad Commission and other agencies to understand that we need to plan to monitor these wells in perpetuity,” said Commission Shift’s Palacios. “Even if you plug these wells, as we have seen in this incident, they can still cause environmental damage and pose a risk to human health.”
Adding more cement to key areas during the plugging process and testing could easily reduce risk, said Tom Slocum, a well-plugging expert and vice president with consulting firm Trifecta Solutions.
“This is a cheap insurance policy,” Slocum said. “For an extra $1,000 to $1,500 of cement, a little bit more time and a couple hundred bucks for testing the cement plug, you can avoid a catastrophe.”