Rusty skeletons are all that remain of hundreds of deserted oil wells. Unable to produce any helpful quantities of oil or gas, the wells were plugged with cement decades ago. The wells appear to be unplugging themselves.

Very first she discovered petroleum bubbling from one abandoned well. Then an another well was seeping pools of produced water, a by-product of oil and gas extraction containing harmful chemicals.

” I’m watching this well literally just spew brine water into my water table, and then I have to go home in the evening, and I’m sweaty and tired and foul-smelling, and I get in the shower, and I turn on the shower and I take a look at it, and I think, is this shower going to eliminate me?” Watt stated.


According to the Epa, 3.2 million deserted oil and gas wells exist in the United States. About a third were plugged with cement to prevent leakages. Most haven’t been plugged at all.

A number of the wells are launching methane, a greenhouse gas containing about 86 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide over two decades. Some are leaking chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into groundwater.

Forgotten Wells Unplugged and Leaking

In this June 2021 image provided by rancher Ashley Williams Watt, the Estes 24 well leakages on the Antina cattle ranch near Crane, Texas. (Image: Ashley Williams Watt through AP)

Regulators do not understand where hundreds of thousands of deserted wells are because numerous were drilled prior to modern record-keeping and plugging rules were developed.

In recent years, abandoned wells have been found on the Navajo Nation, where a hiker stumbled throughout wells exuding fluid that smelled like motor oil; in Colorado, where a basement blew up, eliminating two guys after a deserted flowline dripped methane; and in Wyoming, where a school shut down after air tests revealed high levels of benzene and carbon dioxide.

President Joe Biden wants to invest billions plugging the wells. But Congress is unlikely to allocate enough cash to seriously confront the concern.

” If, suddenly, we might switch to all green renewable energy, that’s great, but these wells don’t disappear; they’re still going to exist,” stated Mary Kang, an assistant professor at McGill University.


After the discoveries on Watt’s cattle ranch, traces of benzene showed up in the well that materials her cattle’s drinking water. Chevron, which owned 2 of the oil wells that recently came unplugged, began trucking in drinking water while its teams attempted to repair the leaks. Watt fretted her animals may have taken in infected water. She had her 600 head of livestock hauled off to another part of her cattle ranch.

Forgotten Wells Unplugged and Leaking

An oil well employee helps to re-plug an abandoned well on the ranch of Ashley Williams Watt, on Jul 9, 2021, near Crane, Texas. (Image: AP/Eric Gay)

Representatives for Chevron said the business is devoted to re-plugging the 2 wells that recently sprang leaks.

But Watt fears extra wells are weakening, and Chevron does not plan to check its other wells.

Pennsylvania has found approximately 8,700 orphaned wells, primarily unplugged.

Forgotten Wells Unplugged and Leaking

Ashley Williams Watt enjoys as a workover rig is utilized to assist replug one of the abandoned wells at her ranch on Jul 9, 2021, near Crane, Texas. (Picture: AP/Eric Gay)

” We’re not plugging fast enough to keep up with the wells we’re finding,” said Seth Pelepko, an environmental program supervisor in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Some states have actually worked with well hunters who use drones and metal detectors. On her Texas ranch, Watt discovered a dark patch of earth using a drone. The sand there is dark and reeks of oil. Watt’s worry is the water below. Without it, she and her long time ranch foreman and his partner – and their cattle – can’t live here. Water is the lifeblood of this place and all of West Texas.


In addition to polluting groundwater, the wells are speeding up global warming. Unplugged, abandoned wells in the United States dripped 5,000 times more methane than plugged wells did, according to a research study cited by the EPA.

Numerous states need business to plug wells that are tapped out and to post bonds in case they go belly-up, but those bonds don’t cover the cost. In 2018, oil-producing states spent US$45 million plugging orphaned wells, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Wyoming and North Dakota funnelled millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds into plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.

Forgotten Wells Unplugged and Leaking

Ashley Williams Watt looks at a flag on Jul 9, 2021, near Crane, Texas, marking a spot where soil samples were taken at her cattle ranch by one of the greatest spills she’s discovered. (Photo: AP/Eric Gay)

Watt thinks the unusual cancer that eliminated her mom may have been associated with wells leaking harmful chemicals on her cattle ranch. She’ll never ever know for sure. More than anything, she wants justice for the land, her livestock – and the legacy her family bestowed to her. This is where she spread out the ashes of her moms and dads.

” My greatest worry when I set every night, even prior to this well became unplugged, is what if I do something to mess up the history of this ranch, that’s still being written?” Watt asked.

” What if that history ends with me?”

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