It’s been a problem decades in the making. Unfortunately, it will take more than a decade to solve the problem as well.
And yet the biggest problem is that there shouldn’t be a problem.
The issue is abandoned wells.
For those not familiar, when a well is abandoned by a company, usually because the company goes out of business, it creates a problem — an unplugged or uncapped well that can present a danger.
The state’s challenge is more than just a public safety one, although that aspect cannot be ignored.
It takes a bit of detective work to discover what wells are abandoned and unplugged. Getting an accurate handle on that is challenging. Sometimes, the last thing on the list for a small, dying energy company will be to inform the state. So, state regulators must first determine what wells are abandoned.
The second challenge is how to plug those abandoned wells. The problem is both one of time and money.
Currently, Wyoming has the capacity to plug about 120 wells per year. The state also has a roster of 1,200 wells that are abandoned.
Companies have been required to post bonds that would help offset an abandoned well and plug them, but the costs don’t appear to cover the actual price of getting the job done.
So there appears to be too little money and too little time for too many wells.
At an interim legislative meeting a couple of weeks ago, state Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, summed it up best: The state has known about this problem for years. The problem has continued to grow. Now, at the rate it’s going, it would take a decade to solve — and that’s assuming that no wells are abandoned within that time period.
Abandoned wells are part of doing business in an energy economy prone to market volatility.
In Gov. Matt Mead’s recently released energy plan, there’s no mention of abandoned wells or how to solve the problem. That’s understandable: Abandoned wells aren’t part of how Wyoming sustains and grows its energy future. But, they are a part of managing energy and they are the result of an energy economy. Regardless of whether they’re included, the state will have to be the entity responsible for solving the problem.
The challenge, of course, is how to solve the problem and the solution, again, is time and money.
The state will probably have to invest some of its own resources to make sure all the wells are properly plugged. The state should also examine if there are ways to speed up the process. Are there more businesses that could be developed to fill the need for reclaiming abandoned wells?
Finally, the state would do well to consider a higher bond for companies. We realize that a high bond might be a deterrent for small companies looking to get into energy development. However, it’s unfair for the state to have to foot the bill for private energy interests, and we’re confident that requiring more from a company upfront will help keep untested companies out of the market.
It’s a good thing that there are so many entrepreneurs and businesses looking to develop energy in Wyoming. We have to understand this aspect as a cost of doing business, not a rarity or anomaly.
1,200 abandoned wells is neither.