‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise

In March 2015, Joe MacLaren, a state oil and gas inspector in Colorado, drove out to the Taylor 3 oil well near the tiny town of Hesperus, in the southwestern corner of the state. He found an entire checklist of violations. Atom Petroleum, a Texas-based company, had bought out more than 50 oil and gas wells after the company that drilled them went bankrupt. Now, Atom was pumping oil from those wells, but Taylor 3 was leaking crude, and it was missing required signage as well as screens on infrastructure to keep birds away from toxic gunk. Worse, the company had not performed safety tests to ensure the well wasn’t leaking fluids underground.

Over the following months, the state slapped Atom with fines, performed follow-up inspections, and demanded a $360,000 bond to cover the cost of shutting down the wells, just in case Atom — hardly proving itself to operate in a trustworthy manner — didn’t clean up its act.

Atom didn’t bother to follow through on one last important obligation. When companies cease production, they are supposed to plug wells with cement to reduce the risk of leaks, and to restore vegetation and wildlife habitat above ground. They recoup their bonds if they do so, whereas if they don’t, the state cashes them. In this case, Atom flouted its responsibility to plug and reclaim its wells, leaving the state to clean up its mess. Colorado did claim a $60,000 bond Atom posted when it first started operating, but the cleanup could cost taxpayers 10 times that.

Officially, Colorado has 244 orphaned wells on its books, but state officials estimate another 400 have yet to be located. And with a new drilling boom tapping deep shale formations along Colorado’s urban Front Range, some worry that the next bust will saddle the public with thousands more.

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