It’s good news that the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association are uniting behind a package of legislation meant to streamline the process of plugging abandoned wells across the state. The need is pressing, with more than 5,000 wells on the KCC’s priority list awaiting action.
The devil, as always, will be in the details.
There are three proposals from the regular and industry. The first, according to Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Carpenter, would “administratively combine two remediation funds, one for historical wells drilled before 1996 and the other for modern wells created since that year, into a singular account.” The second would “clarify in state law how the KCC assigned responsibility for plugging wells.” And the third would “grant authority for the commission to begin reimbursing farmers, landowners or others for taking the initiative to cap wells as long as that person wasn’t determined to be the party legally responsible for the wells.”
All of these ideas seem worthwhile and worthy of consideration from the Legislature. We understand that the oil and gas industry wants legal certainty, especially when the ownership of long-abandoned wells enters the picture. Many were drilled in the 1930s and 1940s and owners are long gone.
What seems less clear to us is how this increased certainty and simplified funding actually translates into more capped wells. It’s all well and good to clarify who actually has responsibility for abandoned well sites. But that doesn’t mean it’s fixed. Likewise, streamlining funds to pay for the work will make bookkeeping simpler. But it doesn’t mean those funds are disbursed to actually support the needed work in communities across the state.
And the biggest, thorniest questions remain. How are these sites actually affecting the environment across the state? Are drinking water supplies at risk? We commend Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, for pressing the KCC on the issue during a hearing this month.
We know that the abandoned wells are a problem. KCC and the industry should be commended for a proactive approach. But the work cannot end with these proposals. Legislatures should push both entities during the upcoming session to answer questions about environmental impact and the actual pressing need.
How will the wells be filled? Who will pay for the work? And when will it be done?