To understand the orphan well problem in NM, someone’s going to have to count them

Will an infusion of federal cash to plug them fall short of the need?

By: - May 31, 2022 5:00 am

An overflowing waste container at an oil and gas collection site in the Horseshoe Gallup Field (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)

The 50-square-mile stretch of public land known as Glade Run is described on the Bureau of Land Management’s website as a “great spot for the weekend warrior.” 

Glade Run is punctured by 600 oil and gas wells, connected by hundreds of access roads and an arterial network of buried gathering lines that leave unvegetated, eroded scars on the land. 

It’s not far from Mike Eisenfeld’s home. He’s the energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He lives in Farmington, N.M, an agricultural community transformed into a center of oil and gas production.

Mike Eisenfled near an aging pumpjack in the Horseshoe Gallup Field (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)

“You should be reclaiming and revegetating well pads and pipeline right of ways,” Eisenfeld said, driving past a cleared well pad, his voice sputtering as his truck traversed the washboard roads that have become a popular off-roading venue for locals. “And cleaning up the mess you have created.”

The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan infrastructure package last year with nearly $44 million to plug and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells in New Mexico. The first round of funding is part of a nationwide push to address growing concerns over abandoned wells’ environmental and health impacts — particularly the release of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

“Orphan wells are an enormous source of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than CO2,”  wrote Sen. Martin Heinrich in an emailed statement to Source New Mexico. “These emissions have devastating impacts on our climate and the health of our communities.”

Total number of orphan wells identified by BLM? Zero

According to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), the agency charged with regulating oil and gas production, 1,741 orphaned and abandoned wells have been identified so far on state and private land.  

“We are continuing to work to refine the numbers, looking through well files and other available data,” said Adrienne Sandoval, director of the division. Her agency plans to use drones and other technology to locate more orphan wells sites. “That number is going to continue to fluctuate and possibly grow. We are gaining a better understanding of the problem.” 

A sign in the Navajo language warns people of the potential dangers of the oil and gas industry in the Horseshoe Gallup Field. (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)

While many have lauded the move to identify and plug orphan wells, the true scope of the problem in New Mexico is still poorly understood. On federal lands in New Mexico — where the majority of oil and gas extraction takes place — the number of orphan wells is still unknown.  

The Bureau of Land Management leases oil and gas permits on such land. Through the agency’s process of reviewing records and inspecting wells deemed high-priority, BLM has not identified any on federal lands in the largest oil and gas region in the state, according to a spokesperson. 

“BLM New Mexico is not aware of any federally managed orphaned wells residing under its administration within the state of New Mexico,” wrote BLM’s Allison Sandoval in an email to Source New Mexico. 

Eisenfeld said this is dubious, and that there are likely many on BLM land. 

Logan Glassenap, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, agrees.

“We know there is a problem. We don’t know its scope,” he said. In March, the alliance wrote a letter to BLM requesting an audit of all inactive oil and gas wells. 

“We do know what it will take to get this under control,” Glassenap said. “But the first step is to figure out how many there are.”

In the San Juan Basin — New Mexico’s largest oil and gas region — there are nearly 40,000 wells located primarily on federal and tribal lands. Eisenfeld estimates there are likely thousands of wells in the region that, while not classified as orphaned, are “in some state of neglect, idleness or abandonment.” 

The EPA could learn a thing or two from New Mexico’s methane rules

“The problem is bigger than anyone realizes,” said Eisenfeld, piloting his gray Tacoma toward the Horseshoe Gallup Field in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, home to hundreds of non-producing wells. “Were at the cusp or really trying to assign liability and responsibility.  That’s a good thing, but this will not be an easy fix.”

Aging pumpjacks, miles of hose

Eisenfeld first visited the Horseshoe Gallup Field after following a tip from a local rancher. The field is in a valley northwest of the San Juan Generating Station, the massive coal plant located in the Four Corners region of New Mexico. What Eisenfeld found was a landscape of aging oil and gas infrastructure, including 122 wells that have not produced oil or gas in at least five years, according to data from the Oil Conservation Division.

“These wells pose numerous environmental threats,” Eisenfeld said. “The government, as far as we can tell, considers these active sites and is not concerned about them.” 

Judging by the state of some of the oil and gas infrastructure, five years seems like a low assessment of their age. The oil and gas field is littered with aging pumpjacks, exposed metal gas lines, and miles of rubber hoses carrying natural gas that mirror an expansive, ad hoc irrigation system braiding through the desert.

Mike Eisenfeld stands on a rock outcropping in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, the center of oil and gas production in the state. (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)

“Those hoses are not supposed to be permanent,” said Eisenfeld, crossing an arroyo and driving up a small hill to a collection site where “gathering” lines from nearby wells feed into a series of storage tanks. 

The site appears unmaintained — rusted metal tanks and plastic barrels of chemicals with indiscernible labels bleached white from the sun. An overflowing waste container in one corner of the site emits a powerful smell of raw oil. These containers, according to Eisenfeld, are supposed to be emptied regularly.   

“This personifies a dump zone,” said Eisenfeld, standing between an old yellow tanker truck, tires exposed to the rims, and the oil-stained ground near the waste container. 

If you’re going to tell me they are not orphaned and not abandoned, then what is the plan to clean them up?

– Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance

It’s an important question. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, nonproducing unplugged wells can leak “oil and other toxic chemicals” that contaminate water sources, contribute to air pollution and emit methane, the main component of natural gas.  

The latter is of particular concern in the San Juan Basin, which has the highest concentration of methane pollution in the U.S.    

Understanding the true scope of the problem will be crucial in plugging wells, Glassenap said, and thus reducing methane emissions and environmental damage.   

“Whatever funding might come from the infrastructure bill, we won’t know how sufficient that funding is until we get an idea of the scope of the problem.” 

According to the OCD, 6,000 wells in New Mexico have not produced in more than a year, and 2,600 of those are on federal lands.

“If there were 10 of me, we could find thousands,” Eisenfeld said, noting the limited resources of his organization. 

Where do we send the bill?

Orphan wells are part of a larger “culture of abandonment” that has defined the oil and gas industry since oil was discovered in the region a century ago, Eisenfeld said.  

It’s a real problem. It’s not just oil and gas but any extractive industry.

– Logan Glassenap, NM Wilderness Alliance

In that time, the San Juan Basin has experienced numerous boom-and-bust cycles, with companies coming and going with fluctuating demand. Companies frequently declare bankruptcy and renege on environmental obligations to plug wells. 

“With limited capital and the possibility of bankruptcy, oil and gas operators may not be able to plug wells and reclaim facilities effectively,” said the OCD in 2020.   

Reclamation has been piecemeal and best. The industry has left an indelible mark on the landscape.  

“It’s a real problem. It’s not just oil and gas but any extractive industry,” Glassenap said. “We have legacy mines that remain a problem 100 years later,” Glassenap said. “No one knows where to send the bill.”

A view from a hill above Route 64 between Farmington and Shiprock (Photo by Samuel Gilbert for Source NM)


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Samuel Gilbert
Samuel Gilbert

Born and raised near Cerrillos, south of Santa Fe, Samuel Gilbert graduated from UNM with degrees in anthropology and American studies before starting his journalism career at a small newspaper in Ramallah, Palestine. Since returning to the United States in 2015, his work has been published by The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera, Vice, The Guardian The Washington Post, The Santa Fe New Mexican and other publications.