U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s $4.7 billion proposal would plug abandoned wells, including 700 in New Mexico
U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., toured various well sites in Lea County on Tuesday hoping to get a complete picture of what new legislation sponsored by him would mean to New Mexicans.
The Democratic senator is co-sponsor of the Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells (REGROW) Act, along with U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. He introduced the $4.7 billion piece of legislation to clean up and plug some 56,000 identified abandoned, or orphaned, oil and gas wells across the U.S. About 700 of those orphaned wells are located in New Mexico the first-term senator said.
“We authored this legislation with the goal of being able to earn support from our colleagues across the country to be able to address the tens of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells across the country,” Luján told the News-Sun Tuesday.
Luján said an important distinction the legislation addresses is those wells identified opposed to those that have yet to be identified.
“We know what’s been identified. There are others that many believe still have not been identified,” he said. “The funding in the REGROW Act … covers what we know that have been included in the oil and gas assessments across the country.”
Orphaned wells are a problem almost everyone can agree on, Luján said, and that’s why he helped author the legislation.
“It’s simple with what it does, but it’s a significant problem that did not have an answer, and it’s been talked about for some years — from the oil and gas industry, from the environmental community, from local elected leaders, community members and some families as well who inherited wells that are not functioning, but they didn’t have the means to be able to remediate the well. This will provide the support for us to go in to be able to plug those abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells.”
In addition to the funding to plug orphaned wells, the REGROW Act also means creating about 13,500 jobs nationwide, Luján said.
“Definitely creating hundreds of jobs here in New Mexico — the folks who will be directly working in this area in addition to those who they would be depending on from a supply chain perspective to be able to carry out that work,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon Luján traveled to remote areas of Lea County and visited an abandoned well, a remediated well, and a fully functioning well to see how it can be addressed at the “end-of-life” before becoming orphaned.
Joining Luján on the tour of the three wells were senior members of his staff, officials from New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division, and representatives from Cimarex.
At the abandoned well site, OCD Engineering Bureau Chief Brandon Powell explained the process of going in at the well head, down about 8,000 feet and starting the plugging process all the way to the surface.
“We would pull all of the tubing and stuff down to that 8,000 feet. We would start setting plugs about every 1,500 feet of formation, all the way up to the surface. Then we would cut off the well head,” Powell said. “They’ll set a stopper at the bottom and through this tubing they’ll run cement, and then put a solid plug inside of that casing so that way fluid can’t go up or down. Then we’ll make sure there is cement on the outside of the casing as well so any fluid that’s down below can’t come up and contaminate any water zones, or any other oil and gas zones.”
Luján motioned around the site indicating all of the equipment, pipe, tanks, fencing, and anything else to do with the well site that was left behind.
“Then all of this stuff comes out?” he asked.
“All of this stuff comes out. Anything under our plugging contract, like tanks — anything we can sell — we sell for salvage at market price, and that helps offset the plugging cost,” Powell said. “Once we’re done we would reclaim all of this and level it off so nature can then take back over … nothing would be left out here.”
After the field tour Luján said, “Orphaned wells pose serious public health and environmental risks for New Mexicans. As I toured orphaned well sites this afternoon, I saw first hand the importance of cleaning up these sites to protect the environment and put New Mexicans back to work in the process.”
While the REGROW Act has put in place funding for the 700 identified abandoned wells across the state, and 56,000 across the U.S., the State of New Mexico does have additional resources some states do not have in plugging abandoned wells, and it starts with NMEMNRD’s ability to pursue the owner of record of the well prior to being abandoned, said Powell during the tour of an orphaned well.
“We only plug when we can’t get anyone else to plug,” he said. “We want to put that burden on the operators who made the money first. … The RAF plugging contract is not funded from the general fund, or taxpayers. It’s an actual tax the oil and gas companies pay into for abandoned sites. That’s something New Mexico does that’s different from some of the other states.”
Luján said while recovering the costs of plugging the wells is not in the REGROW Act, it is something that should be looked at based on the leadership the State of New Mexico is showing in the area.
“Based on what’s been established in New Mexico, clearly some states have established policies and procedures that allow for going after companies if they can be identified, and something similar should be looked at federally. That’s something that should be done, we should look at that,” he said. “That’s something we do better here in New Mexico.”
“I think the impetus behind all of this is there is such a need across the country, and here in New Mexico, that there needed to be federal attention to this issue,” Luján’s deputy chief of staff Aaron Trujillo said.
Powell noted the Bureau of Land Management also has a similar program.
“They do have that same practice where they chase out all record title holders and investors on federal lands, to make sure that once we declare a site orphaned that there is no one else we can go after. We want to use their (site title holder) money before we use any government money,” Powell said. “In New Mexico we handle it the same if it’s on state or private land.”
If someone has an orphaned well located on their property, Luján said to contact the OCD and work with the state to have the well identified as orphaned to start the process of remediation.