By T.J. Wilham
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New data shows there are more than 2,500 "orphan wells" throughout New Mexico that have the potential to leak dangerous gas into the air and contaminate groundwater.
And experts think there could be more that we don’t know about.
Orphan wells are oil drilling operations that were abandoned and never sealed and there is no owner on record.
“Either through bankruptcy or debt, the operator of record just didn't plug the well,” said Adam Peltz of the Environmental Defense Fund.
For decades, no one has known exactly how many of these existed.
The Environmental Defense Fund has been trying to track them. New data provided to Target 7 from the organization shows the GPS coordinates of 125,000 wells across the country.
In New Mexico, the majority — more than 900 — are in Chaves County.
"But, there are more wells that are yet to be properly categorized and some that haven't even been found yet,” Peltz said. “There's probably 800,000 or more undocumented orphan wells that are suspected to be in an area but where there's no data. So, the only way to find those is to go out and do surveys. Either you walk the land and you look for a disturbance, or you fly a drone with lidar or magnetometer or something along those lines in order to try to locate them."
The state has been working for years to contain the problem, and the pace was slow.
Using taxes collected on oil and gas production, the state only had enough money to plug up about 50 a year. At that rate, it would have taken up to 34 years to plug wells just on private and state land.
“Many of the ones we are plugging right now were drilled in the '70s, some in the '60s,” said Adrienne Sandoval, the state’s oil conservation director. “But, we have plugged wells that dated back well before that into the '30s, '40s, '50s."
The process can cost as much as $200,000 to plug a well.
"It's not just plugging the well, it's removing the equipment on the site," Sandoval said. “It's cleaning up any existing spills that were on the site. And then it's kind of regarding reseeding and turning the site back into, you know, the landscape that it previously was."
To speed up the process, the state recently received $25 million from the federal REGROW Act. State officials now expect to plug about 200 wells within the next year.
"The more funding that we have, the quicker we can move forward and close out these sites, which is important for a number of reasons,” Sandoval said.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan introduced a bill to dedicate more than $162 million over the next five years to develop new technology that will identify these wells.
"I do believe there are more orphan wells out there,” Lujan said. ”(We need to) look to technologies that we are more aware of that show the greatest promise to get this done to maximize what those investments will be."