Paging Walker, Texas Ranger. Alert Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot and (shudder) Mr. Emmet Walsh’s ruthless private investigator of single blood. We have a full-fledged Texas mystery on our hands. Call it the case of the undocumented oil well.
Around New Year’s Eve, a well on a ranch in southern Crane County came to life. It blew 25,000 barrels a day of brackish water a hundred feet into the air. That in itself was strange. There are no known areas of high pressure salt water, at least none that exist naturally.
Was it a clogged and abandoned oil well? An old water well? There was nothing in the state mapping system to indicate there was a well there. On January 10, private researchers digging through the archives found a recording of a well drilled in 1948 by Gulf Oil called CT 112. It was a 1,390-foot dry hole that was plugged in 1957. Because that Chevron had acquired Gulf in the years that followed and assumed responsible for its clogged wells, Chevron took over and brought the geyser under control on Monday of this week.
And that’s when the mystery thickens. While digging around the blowhole, Chevron found a second well twenty feet away. From the number and diameter of the steel pipes in the well, the second well appears to be CT 112. This means that the blowout was from an unknown well, of unknown depth and belonging to an unknown owner. “We’ve had people go through all of our records and we can’t find, to date, a record,” says Dennis McHugh, general manager of Chevron’s wells in the Permian Basin. ” We do not know. It’s a mystery to us.
There should be a record of this well, but there isn’t. In 1931, the Texas Railroad Commission issued an order requiring royalty holders to produce records of all wells in the giant East Texas oilfield around Kilgore. Since then, the agency has tracked and recorded well locations throughout the state. This is important to ensure that royalty owners are paid and that wells are properly maintained and capped when no longer in use. (McHugh said the design of the newly discovered well suggests it could be from the 1970s or 1980s.)
If there is indeed a lost mystery out there that has been suddenly resurrected, could there be others? “It’s clear that the Railroad Commission doesn’t have a good idea of how to monitor pits in perpetuity, nor does it have the funds to do so,” says Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a nonprofit watchdog that advocates for reform of Texas oil and gas watchdog.
The state currently spends about $53 million a year on orphan wells, but the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill signed into law late last year earmarks $4.7 billion for orphan wells. “plugging, remediation and restoration activities for well sites”. And in December, the Texas Railroad Commission requested $481.2 million of that funding to plug nearly 7,400 orphan wells and clean up areas around old wells. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” says Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright, a Republican and rancher from South Texas elected in 2020, when asked how many of those undocumented wells there might be. . He adds that the state agency’s data collection has improved significantly. “I would caution against overreacting to plugging failures,” he says, noting that he expects the problem that led to a geyser to be site-specific, not endemic to the oilfields of West Texas.
For now, Chevron says it will continue to pay for operations on the cattle ranch in Crane County where the eruption occurred, although it is no longer clear if it is a Chevron sink. Chevron installed a large blowout preventer above the well which prevented water from flowing to the surface, but water can still flow underground from a high pressure area to a low pressure area. low pressure. It remains to be seen what is happening underground to cause such an eruption, and whether decades of nearby oil activity played a role. Chevron plans to clean the wellbore with coiled tubing, then lower the test equipment into the hole.
Yet, given that an undocumented well has appeared out of nowhere, causing trouble, and no one knows who drilled it, begs a question: it’s 2022, in Texas, do you know where your wells are?