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Gov. Hickenlooper signs order to tackle orphan oil & gas wells

Author: Marianne Goodland - July 18, 2018 - Updated: August 7, 2018

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orphan wellsGov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on July 18 to boost the state’s efforts on plugging orphan wells. Photo by Marianne Goodland

Gov. John Hickenlooper Wednesday signed an executive order that directs the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to ramp up its efforts to clean up some of the state’s more than 530 “orphan” oil and gas wells around the state.

Hickenlooper said Wednesday that the problem of orphan wells — abandoned wells that have been turned over to the state and the owners often can’t be found — is “one of the biggest concerns in the oil and gas industry.” There’s a greatly elevated risk of rupture with some of these wells, Hickenlooper said.

The General Assembly authorized the COGCC to set up an orphan well fund in the 2018-19 budget, boosting its funding from $445,000 to $5 million per year, paid for with oil and gas taxes. The cost estimated to plug, remediate and reclaim all of the wells is $25 million.

Matt Lepore, who was then the COGCC’s executive director, told KDVR-Fox31 last February that it costs about $80,000 to clean up an orphan well and that the COGCC can clean up 10 to 12 wells per year. Hickenlooper’s executive order identifies 262 orphan wells that need to be plugged and another 373 that need remediation.

“I worry about the number of future orphan wells,” Lepore told KDVR. “To me, the orphan well situation is a little like a hurricane sitting offshore and you know it’s out there and you know it’s coming ashore, you just don’t  know if it’s going to be a tropical storm or a Category 5.”

Hickenlooper said Wednesday the COGCC will hire more contractors to tackle more of those wells every year.

Bob Randell, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, told reporters that the COGCC is working to prioritize a list of the wells, to be categorized into low-, medium- and high-priority, based on criteria such as population density, the proximity of “sensitive resources,” and the history of violations at the well site.

The oil and gas industry is a partner in this effort, Hickenlooper said. Tracee Bentley, who leads the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the “industry is fully committed to operating under the highest standards when it comes to environmental protection and we welcome the Governor’s directive today.”

Hickenlooper said having the industry’s participation is the second-best solution. The first, he added, is that the companies that own the wells take responsibility for them at the time of shutdown.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) issued a statement that called the executive order a positive step.

“This order directs the COGCC to use the money it already collects from oil and natural gas taxes to plug and reclaim these wells, which makes a great deal of sense,” said Dan Haley, COGA’s president and CEO.

However, the Environmental Defense Fund thinks the executive order doesn’t go far enough. In a statement, former state Sen. Dan Grossman of Denver, the national director of state programs on oil and gas, said “We appreciate the Governor’s efforts, as orphan wells are a long-term environmental problem that deserves attention, but Colorado should prioritize the health and safety of communities living in the state’s active oil fields. Leaks and catastrophic blowouts can result from poorly constructed and maintained oil and gas wells, and Colorado needs to update its rules to ensure the industry is minimizing these risks.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.