TOPEKA (KSNT) – Have you ever wondered what happens with old abandoned oil derricks in Kansas? Since 1995, around 11,000 natural gas and oil wells drilled over the last century-and-a-half have been plugged off.

Oil and gas drilling started in the late 1800s and spread east to west through Kansas. Development of drilling regulations didn’t begin until the late 1930s with comprehensive regulation not established until the 1970s, according to a Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) report.

FILE – A pumping unit sucks oil from the ground near Greensburg, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Many oil wells were never properly plugged off, leaving potential environmental consequences up to a century later, according to the KCC. Many wells weren’t documented and have been buried or overgrown, making them hard to find.

Wells found in the eastern part of the state are typically older and have very little industry or historical documentation.

“As a general rule, as you move west, specifically the southwest, it [wells] gets deeper,” KCC Conservation Division Director Ryan Hoffman said. “The further east you go, the shallower it is. It’s geology, it’s where the formations that produce the oil and gas are.”

Kansas has historically been a top 10 producer of oil and gas in the U.S., according to Hoffman. The advent of newer technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has helped other states outpace Kansas’ oil and gas industry. However, Hoffman says there’s still a lot of conventional oil and gas activity in Kansas.

How are wells plugged?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wells were typically plugged by pouring cement in the hole from the surface, according to the National Petroleum Council (NPC). For shallower wells, the method was somewhat effective. As wells went deeper, cement needed to be pumped down to desired depths.

Ashley Williams Watt
Ashley Williams Watt walks near a wellhead and flowline at her ranch, Friday, July 9, 2021, near Crane, Texas. Some are leaking dangerous chemicals into the ground, which are seeping into her cattle’s drinking water. And she doesn’t know how long it’s been going on. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Many early plugs didn’t harden as desired because holes required prior cleaning, according to the NPC. Newer methods use cement with hole-cleaning characteristics which can displace leftover mud. Modern methods run a tube to the desired depth and cement is pumped down the tubing. Cement flows around the tubing then water is pumped behind the cement. If done correctly, the cement will fill the space left by the tubing and leave a section of clean cement.

In the 1950s prior to modern regulations, many wells were plugged with brush, wood, paper sacks, linen or any other form of material that could be pushed into a well, according to the NPC.

“If it’s a shallower well we may just pull the tubing out and fill it with cement,” Hoffman said. “So, you have your casing there and you fill that with cement all the way to the surface. Some of the deeper wells, instead of filling with cement, we’ll stage plugs over useful water or other formations like salt sections to keep them from being intruded by any other fluids and then cement at the surface.”

Where does the funding come from?

In 1996, the Abandoned Well Plugging and Site Remediation Fund was established, creating a plan to address abandoned oil wells around Kansas.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden signed a bill Nov. 15, 2021, creating an orphaned well plugging, remediation and reclamation program with the Department of Interior. Kansas was made eligible to receive $58.6 million to address abandoned wells. Twenty-five million dollars was received for initial grants and the KCC is eligible for another $33.6 million from formula grants. In total, $4.7 billion has been allocated to plug wells across the U.S., according to the KCC.

On July 1, 2021, House Bill 2022 in the Kansas Legislature merged the Abandoned Oil and Gas Well Fund and the Well Plugging Assurance Fund so the KCC would have all well-plugging funds available to use. Money collected from leasing public land to drilling operations under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 was going to Abandoned Oil and Gas Well Fund prior to the merger.

“Still to come are the performance grants,” Hoffman said, “And there are regulatory improvement grants and then matching grants… Haven’t received any guidance on it; essentially $50 million is out there. Don’t know if we’d qualify for it all but it’s potentially there.”

Field data from four Conservation Division Districts puts the average cost to plug a well at $10,739. At this price, the remaining 5,290 abandoned wells in Kansas would cost roughly $56 million. Price discrepancies between districts are typically due to well depth with deeper wells requiring more effort to plug, according to the KCC.

What is the status of abandoned wells in Kansas?

Since the creation of the state well-plugging fund, 11,000 abandoned wells have been plugged. After Kansas was awarded $25 million for the initial federal grant under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the KCC put out a Request for Proposal for eight projects containing more than 2,300 wells to be plugged over the course of the next two to three years. As of January 2023, 5,290 wells still need to be plugged in Kansas. According to Hoffman, the number fluctuates as projects are added and wells are plugged.

The KCC expects more wells to be added to the list of abandoned wells as companies go bankrupt, new well-locating techniques are created and as staff respond to additional complaints.

“There’s a lot of data that needs to be combed through and at that time we had gone through a staff transition where certain data hadn’t been entered into the database,” Hoffman said about the uptick in the number of abandoned wells following the adoption of HB 2022. “That’s why there was an increase in wells there. It was more of catching up on data cleanup.”

In 2022, 249 plugging operations were approved and all projects were completed. There are still more abandoned wells needing plugs than federal funds can provide.