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Report Card on HB 2259 – Inactive Wells

In its 2009 Legislative Session, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2259, whose stated purpose is to ensure that inactive oil and gas wells get plugged and that surface equipment associated with those wells gets removed. I provided a summary of the bill’s terms in a post on this site. A summary of the bill’s requirements from the Texas Railroad Commission may be found here. The Texas Land and Mineral Owners Association, which lobbied for the bill, has now issued its report card: the Railroad Commission is not doing its job.

HB 2259 does not actually require that inactive wells be plugged. It imposes requirements on operators of inactive wells, depending on how long the wells have been inactive, to: disconnect the wells from electricity; post additional bonds to assure that the wells will eventually be plugged; and remove surface equipment from the wells. These provisions are phased in over a 10-year period. HB 2259 provides that an operator who does not comply with the new requirements will lose its operating permit (known as a P-5) — meaning that it will not have the right to continue to operate any wells in the State.

Recently, TLMA asked the RRC how many P-5 permits have been denied because of failure to comply with HB 2259. The answer: none. Even though, according to TLMA, almost 1,500 operators failed to comply with the statute.

After HB 2259 was passed, operators complained to the Lege that they could lose their P-5 for simple paperwork violations that were not substantive. So the Lege in 2011 amended the statute to provide to the operator an opportunity to appeal the RRC’s denial of an operating permit.

TLMA asked the RRC how many violations of the statute resulted from paperwork problems and how many were substantive violations. The RRC was unable to provide that information.

According to the RRC’s website, there are 38,854 inactive wells in Texas that have been inactive for 10 years or more. Inactive wells pose a hazard to the environment, including groundwater resources, and are an eyesore on Texas land.

Under a typical oil and gas lease, the operator has no obligation to plug a well as long as the lease remains in effect. When leases reach their later stages of production they are often transferred to smaller operators who continue to operate the active wells on the lease as “stripper” wells. When a lease is transferred, the RRC requires that the permit to operate wells on the lease be transferred to the new operator. As long as the wells are in compliance with RRC rules and the new operator has a valid operating permit, the transfer will be approved. Once transfer of the permits for the wells is approved, the prior operator has no further obligation with respect to the wells transferred. So the prior operator in effect has transferred the obligation to plug any inactive wells on the lease to the new operator. Stripper well operators may have limited financial resources and will continue to defer plugging of active wells as long as they can. In many instances, the stripper operator eventually goes broke, and the obligation to plug the wells falls on the State. The wells become “orphan” wells.

I have struggled to find an appropriate way to address inactive wells in my oil and gas leases. Operators naturally want to delay spending the money to plug inactive wells. One solution I have used in oil and gas leases is to impose a “rental” on inactive wells. The lease provides that the lessee must pay the landowner for the right to keep a well unplugged and inactive. The annual rentals increase over time, thus increasing the operator’s incentive to either plug the well or put it back into production. Failure to pay the rental may result in termination of the lease.

With the new drilling boom in Texas, the problem of inactive wells will only continue to increase. It remains to be seen whether HB 2259 will improve the situation.

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