The Beverly Hillbillies were excited to strike oil in their land, but Kansas farmers are unhappy when they discover rusty pipes in the field with a tractor.

The Beverly Hillbillies were excited to strike oil in their land, but Kansas farmers are unhappy when they discover rusty pipes in the field with a tractor. These ancient structures and surrounding equipment are usually parts of abandoned or orphaned wells, common in the oil boom areas of Kansas’ Southeast corner and near Hays.
“These wells will pop up in cities and schools,” said Patrick Shields, the abandoned well plugging supervisor for Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC). “We’ve plugged quite a few in Wichita since it was built on an oil field.”
Abandoned oil and gas wells seep fossil fuels when not plugged properly, so when major companies or individuals running wells leave them, they risk polluting the site.
“The saltwater in the formation has the ability to break down the steel side, and depending on the location you can have freshwater contamination or sinkholes where there’s a formation with a lot of water in it when it hits a salt section,” Shields said. “If it’s not too deep then the salt caverns collapse and cause a sinkhole.”
Unmonitored wells can accidentally leak fossil fuels into the environment and damage the ecosystem if they are not plugged properly. Shields explained that of the 2.5 million abandoned US oil wells, there are 35,000 wells on the plugging list in Kansas, five of those in McPherson County.
According to the KCC, the high number of abandoned wells in Kansas comes from the lack of regulation in the 1930s. Oil and gas development began in the late 1880s and progressed until full regulation came into place in the 1970s. When the wells were abandoned, the surrounding trees and grass covered them, so they are difficult to find and plug today.
“We prioritize and plug them based on environmental threat,” Shields said. “Rarely does it fall to the landowner, that’s a common misconception.”
The last operator is responsible for plugging the abandoned well, but if they cannot be determined, the Conservation Department of the KCC has a fund to cover costs of plugging. The fund is limited, so the KCC can usually plug 300 of the 35,000 wells on the growing list per year. The list is prioritized by threat — wells that leak into groundwater are plugged before stable but inactive wells.
The number of wells operating in Kansas has steadily dropped in the past 10 years. The Kansas Geological Survey reports a shift from 598 oil and 52 gas wells in 2010 to 515 oil and 23 gas wells in 2015. Yet the production rate is steadily rising — Kansas produced 207,212,064 barrels of oil in 2005 but produced 211,047,204 barrels in 2015.
“We’re getting better at oil extraction,” Shields said. “They’re still drilling wells, but the methods of extraction have developed.”
Wells are rendered safe with cement plugging. Areas in Southeast Kansas tend to have shallower wells so the KCC plugs those fully with cement. In the Western regions, a technician performs stage plugging by shooting holes in the sides of the deeper wells and filling them with cement to stabilize the structure, then sections are filled fully. Some older plugs have cracked with old cement, but the KCC uses stronger quality cement and monitors to ensure stability.
“Our goal is to never ever have a problem with them again,” Shields said. “We don’t foresee them as real issue at this time.”
Not all abandoned wells are covered by the same law, but it depends on the state of hazard and how much is known about the well. Wells are legally “abandoned” after a year of inactivity and if the last operator is known, they are in charge of plugging the well. But if there is no information on the well, it is considered an orphan.
“The abandoned well is not the responsibility of the landowner,” Shields said. “We encourage people to report wells as much as possible because we don’t know until people tell us.”
If you know of an abandoned well, report it at http://www.kcc.state.ks.us/conservation/reported_abandoned.cgi.