Addressing Adams County’s orphan well problem

Despite passage of new regulations, county awaits future state regulations to address orphan wells

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/23/21

Adams County is tied with La Plata County for having the second-highest number of orphan oil and gas wells in Colorado. However, new regulations will only go so far in addressing the problem. As of …

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Addressing Adams County’s orphan well problem

Despite passage of new regulations, county awaits future state regulations to address orphan wells

Posted

Adams County is tied with La Plata County for having the second-highest number of orphan oil and gas wells in Colorado. However, new regulations will only go so far in addressing the problem.

As of July, Adams County said it counted 77 orphaned sites, an unplugged facility that is without an owner or whose owner isn’t maintaining and plugging the site. The state takes over the well when an operator leaves it orphaned, but local residents end up facing the consequences.

“The potential risks associated with orphaned wells are not the same for each facility; however there are several known orphaned sites in Adams County where historical impacts to environmental resources were only discovered by the COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) once the decommissioning operations began,” Greg Dean, the county’s oil and gas liaison, said in an email statement.

Older orphan wells pose a greater danger because they were drilled when there were few regulations, said Dean. Spills from orphan wells can pollute groundwater and soil, and methane leaks are considered hazardous air pollutants.

Adams County Commissioner and board Chairperson Eva Henry said orphan wells, “show the integrity of the actual issue. It shows what they leave behind … they leave behind poison with these abandoned wells.”

Industry advocates acknowledged that orphan wells are a problem but disagreed with Henry’s portrayal. Carrie Hackenberger, associate director of the American Petroleum Institute Colorado, said in an email statement, “The number of orphan wells in the state is relatively small in comparison to Colorado’s ongoing oil and gas operations, and that success owes itself to Colorado operators’ ongoing commitment to ensuring the safety and protection of the communities in which they are engaged.”

Commissioners approved regulations in 2019 that require operators to post a performance bond for financial assurance and provide environmental liability insurance of up to $1 million for all new facilities. But Henry argues the bonding requirements, which the state determines, is too low.

Commissioners approved a new round of regulations in July to increase setbacks from residential areas and environmentally sensitive areas. The new regulations ensure a greater distance between orphan wells and at-risk areas but don’t directly impact the orphan well issue.

The COGCC is considering new regulations for orphan wells, which Adams County officials see as making the biggest difference. The regulations would raise bonding requirements for financial assurance and, “requirements of operators to plug and abandon wells that are no longer deemed used or useful,” Dean said.

The county said it’s an official party in the COGCC rule making process for financial assurances. Once the state updates its regulations, the county will amend its own early next year.

Hackenberger said about the forthcoming regulations, “We agree that more work needs to be done, and are actively engaged in the current financial assurance rulemaking before the COGCC, which we expect will further strengthen Colorado’s existing financial assurance requirements.”

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