CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Abandoned oil and gas wells are increasingly marring the West Virginia landscape, as the Department of Environmental Protection office assigned to oversee them falls further behind with inspections and regulatory enforcement, according to a report released Tuesday to a pair of House-Senate interim oversight committees.
Legislative auditors counted around 13,000 abandoned wells, out of 110,693 wells tracked by the Office of Oil and Gas in its vast database. But the office can't identify who last operated 5,800 abandoned wells, while the operators of another 4,700 of them have not committed to plugging the well or restarting them within 10 years.
The data lists wells in all but five of West Virginia's 55 counties. Ritchie County had the most, at nearly 1,600 abandoned wells.
State law requires operators to cap a well that's dry or unused for at least 12 consecutive months, unless they can show a future use for the well. But Christopher Carney, an analyst for the legislative auditor, said that law is not being enforced. Just 34 wells are exempted from the plugging requirement because of their potential future use, Carney said.
Carney said the database cannot prompt alerts for wells that don't post production figures after 12 months. A random sample from its records show that 53 percent of the abandoned wells checked were idle for at least five years, while 43 percent had sat unused for at least 10, Carney said.
The audit report also found that inspectors weren't visiting abandoned wells, a number of which are in hard-to-reach locations. Carney said collectively, uninspected wells pose significant risks to public health and the environment.
Office chief James Martin agreed the database should flag idled wells, and said his staff will pursue that as well as updates to its website also called for by the audit report. But he faulted an overarching issue for much of the audit's findings.
"We certainly would recognize that the office has been understaffed and underfunded for a number of years,'' Martin said.
He added that lawmakers remedied that somewhat late last year, with the passage of rules for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling that included permit fees meant to fund the hiring of additional inspectors and office staff.