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Lizzie Fletcher urges Texas to increase orphan well funding

WASHINGTON — Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher is urging the Texas Railroad Commission and state legislators to reverse a reduction in funding for the state's orphan well program, warning they could imperil future federal assistance for the state.

Fletcher, a Democrat who introduced orphan well legislation that made available $4.6 billion in federal funding through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, said the intent was to have states use the money to expand upon their efforts to prevent abandoned wells from contaminating land and waterways.

In 2021 the Railroad Commission spent $72 million in state funds on plugging orphaned wells, $9 million more than has been budgeted this year, according to a Chronicle review of state budget data.

"The federal funding was designed to supplement the existing funding and really address the backlog of abandoned wells, rather than maintain the status quo," Fletcher said in an interview Wednesday. "The state has a budget surplus at the moment, so it's really about the state prioritizing plugging and funding it at the same level it has in has in past years."

A spokesperson for the commission said funding had not been reduced but rather the higher level of funding in 2021 was the result of "a one-time infusion of state rainy day funds."

"It’s inaccurate to use your analysis and say the state is foregoing its long-standing funding commitment to plug orphaned wells," she wrote.

State Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, who lead the appropriations subcommittee in the Texas House that funds the Railroad Commission, did not respond to a request for comment.

Under state law, oil companies are required to fill oil and gas wells with cement plugs within 12 months of halting production. But if a company closes down or goes bankrupt, the responsibility for closing off those wells oftentimes falls on the state, which is planning to plug 2,000 abandoned wells this year, primarily paid for with federal funds.

But with new wells constantly being added to the list of the abandoned, the Railroad Commission has struggled to keep up.

It currently lists almost 8,200 abandoned wells, a 3% increase from August 2022 when the state received its initial $25 million grant under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Under the federal orphan well program, states receive funding not only based on how many orphaned wells they have but how much they are spending and the degree to which they're adjusting state laws to limit companies' ability to abandon wells in the first place.

In Texas, which has plugged more orphaned wells than any other state, landowners and environmental activists have long campaigned for tougher rules, seeking to limit companies’ ability to get years-long extensions on state plugging requirements, as well as their ability to shift liability for older wells to less well-capitalized companies.

Fletcher said she was still trying to figure out why the Railroad Commission reduced its budget request for orphaned wells, but had believed "the commission wants to get access to every dollar they can."

"I've had a couple good conversations with folks at the commission, and my team is in contact," she said. "This is something we can address. The state has plenty of money right now, and I plan to work with my friends in the state legislature to make sure this stays a priority for our state."

View this article on HoustonChronicle.com