Kansas gets ‘once in a lifetime’ funds to plug thousands of abandoned gas wells

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A “once in a lifetime” federal investment will clean up more than 2,300 abandoned gas wells — some of which may be leaking super-polluting methane — in Kansas. 

But that’s only a fraction of the state’s approximately 11,000 abandoned wells. And data about old wells can be flawed.

“Even if we have records, sometimes we find that we may have three records talking about the same well … so until we get somebody out there and kind of shore up all of the data we have, it’s always sort of an estimate,” said Ryan Hoffman, director of the conservation division of the Kansas Corporation Commission

Kansas has identified more abandoned gas wells than any other state, according to the White House, and will receive $25 million under federal legislation for an initial series of projects to plug 2,352 wells. 

Though the state is no longer one of the country’s most significant producers of natural gas, an early boom starting more than a century ago left thousands of wells — many of them with few records. The Kansas Corporation Commission started a program in the 1990s to plug them. So far it has completed about 11,000, Hoffman said. 

It has at least that many left. 

Hoffman said the state typically has about $1.5 million each year to plug anywhere from 200 to 400 wells. State officials usually find and record that many wells that need plugging each year, so the number of wells left that need to be plugged doesn’t change much. Plugging 2,352 with that $25 million from the federal government will help Kansas jump ahead in the effort. The state could get as much as $33.6 million more after that.

“That’s a significant portion of the threat that we’re removing,” Hoffman said. “And then, of course, over the next five years … hopefully we’ll be able to make an even bigger dent in that number.”

‘A greenhouse gas on steroids’

Kansas doesn’t know how many of the thousands of abandoned wells might be leaking. It doesn’t take any air measurements around them. 

But Nathan Phillips, a professor in the earth and environment department at Boston University, said the total impact of methane leaks related to natural gas use — from extraction through refining and all the way into homes — is likely to add up to a greater climate impact than the burning of coal.

When natural gas is burned to heat homes or cook food, it gives off carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

But leaking methane, Phillips said, is far worse. If it’s not combusted, it’s dozens of times more potent.

“It’s like a greenhouse gas on steroids,” Phillips said. 

Methane leaks along the natural gas supply chain alone make up 10% of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas emissions, Phillips said.

Curtis Shuck, who chairs the board of the Well Done Foundation, a nonprofit that plugs wells across the country, said the amount of methane that wells leak varies widely. Some wells might not be leaking any methane. But his organization just plugged one in Ohio that was leaking 2,000 cubic feet per day.

If it leaked that much consistently, it would equal 1.6 times the natural gas used by the average Kansas household in a year.

‘They couldn’t drink their water’

Beyond the climate impact, wells can pose a risk to fresh water, said Richard McIntyre, of Quality Well Service Inc.

“We’ve had some wells out on some farmsteads … and they couldn’t drink their water out of the water well for 10 years,” McIntyre said. “They couldn’t even give it to the cattle.” 

McIntyre has plugged wells under contracts with the Kansas Corporation Commission for decades. 

“Time after time after time, once we got the bad oil well out of the way,” McIntyre said, “their freshwater will clean up and they can get back on the rural water wells that they haven’t been able to use forever.”

The KCC prioritizes well plugging based on the risk to surrounding communities. Only 16 wells are listed on the agency’s inventory as priority 1A, which Hoffman said denotes an “immediate threat to either groundwater, surface water or public safety.”

There are also priority 1B wells, which Hoffman said could “become an immediate threat at any time.” The state’s priority 1C wells aren’t immediate threats, and the priority 2 wells are not expected to be a threat “for quite a while.” 

The 2,352 wells that Kansas will plug through the federal grant were selected because the KCC had already determined there was no legally responsible party. The agency must investigate to see if a company or individual should be required to plug the well before spending state funds to do it.

With the deadline for the grant, Hoffman said, it was fortunate that the 2,352 wells had been identified because Kansas couldn’t have gone through that process quickly enough otherwise. 

Those wells are primarily in eastern Kansas. There are 2,247 across 19 counties from Jefferson County, which is just north of Topeka, to the Oklahoma border. There are a few dozen wells along the Colorado border, 22 in south-central Kansas, and 31 in Rooks, Osborne, Decatur and Russell counties.

“You’re talking from the Missouri border in the east all the way to the Colorado border in the west that we’ll be plugging wells — and then also along Oklahoma and Nebraska — so it really is something that could have a true statewide impact,” Hoffman said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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