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Abandoned Texas oil wells are blowing out. The state won't fix them

Rancher Schuyler Wight at one of more than 100 abandoned wells on his property. [Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio] By Amal Ahmed

Schuyler Wight is a fourth generation rancher who has raised longhorn cattle outside Midland, Texas, for decades. Wight is no geologist, but over the years, he’s had to familiarize himself with what lies underground. Scattered across his sprawling 20,000-acre ranch are more than 100 abandoned oil and gas wells left behind by wildcatters who drilled in random locations for decades looking for oil. Many were unsuccessful, but the drilling opened up layers of porous rock, revealing water and minerals.

Rather than cap the holes, the wildcatters and their oil companies–now long gone–transferred ownership of unproductive wells to the previous owners of Wight’s ranch to be used as water wells, known as P-13 wells.

Decades later, some of the wells on Wight’s land are leaking contaminated water, hydrogen sulfide and radioactive materials. Occasionally, Wight’s cattle drink water that has bubbled up to the surface and die, representing thousands of dollars in losses for his ranch.

Typically, the Texas Railroad Commission would take responsibility for cleaning up oil and gas wells abandoned by now-defunct drilling companies. But the commission won’t spend a dime on wells like Wight’s. That’s because the commission argues his wells aren’t oil or gas wells because they never successfully produced fossil fuels.

Without state or federal funds to clean up the mess, farmers, ranchers and small local governments are struggling to fix the major environmental damage left from decades of drilling. Wight has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars–and counting–to clean up just a few of the wells on his property.

“That’s a lot of money when you’ve got to pay it back with cattle,” Wight said.

This reporting co-published with The Texas Tribune and Grist. Marfa Public Radio is a collaborator.

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