By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — Legislation heard Wednesday would clarify legal responsibility and make it easier to fund plugging thousands of abandoned gas and oil wells across Kansas, advocates of the bill say.
Estimates indicate there are currently about 5,600 wells that require plugging and 10,000 wells plugged to date in the state. Last year, 349 were plugged, but there was only a net of 21 wells total plugged.
The proposed bill would combine two funds used to pay to plug the wells, making access to the money easier. It would also clarify who is legally responsible for plugging a well and authorize reimbursement in certain cases.
Dwight Keen, chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission, which worked directly on the bill language, said the measure is a “win-win-win” for stakeholders.
“It’s a win for the environment, a win for the regulatory process and a win for the regulated oil and gas industry,” Kenn said. “Simply stated, it provides greater regulatory clarity, stability and certainty for the regulator, the regulated industry and for the public. In every respect, this bill advances the cause of good government.”
Representatives of the KCC and multiple oil and gas associations testified before the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, saying the bill would provide the sense of certainty they have been working for decades to accomplish. The single opponent of the bill expressed concern the legislation does not include the environmental imperative to ensure the wells are taken care of.
The legislation is nearly identical to a bill that passed through committee last year before the measure died when COVID-19 cut the session short.
Currently, Kansas has two pools it can pull funds from to manage the abandoned wells — one for wells drilled before 1996 and one for those drilled after. Waymaster said the post-1996 fund has barely been touched since its creation two decades ago.
Under the proposed law, the funds would be combined into one pool for all abandoned wells. Ryan Hoffman, director of KCC’s conservation division, said combined, the funds would total $6.73 million.
“We’ve already have almost $3 million in projects lined up for taking care of them,” Hoffman said, “so having access to that additional money is key.”
Hoffman said additional funding would be needed to fully address the issue, but that the KCC would take a phased approach to ensure the necessary money is available.
The bill would also clarify who KCC can assign responsibility to for plugging wells, which would accelerate the process and allow landowners to be reimbursed if they take the initiative to cap wells — as long as the landowner is not determined to be the party responsible for the wells.
While those who testified were largely supportive of the proposed changes to the law, Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club, expressed concern with the removal of a clause that dictates that any well that has been abandoned or not plugged properly will be deemed likely to cause pollution of any useable water.
“That is the only statutory language in actual law that provides the imperative for the state to continue to plug abandoned wells because it is likely to cause pollution,” Pistora said.
Pistora said if that language were to be added back, the Sierra Club would be neutral or in favor of the bill.