While federal regulators have ignored abandoned oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico, at least 25 states have been busy sealing their old wells. On land, leaky old wells aren't so easily forgotten. In Indiana, Mary Estrada, manager of the state's abandoned wells program, has seen crude oil from an old well oozing up toilets and sinks in a home. Last week, she inspected a Posey County oil well abandoned in 1975. It had been used to pump salt water into the ground to stimulate other wells, but the salt water has now polluted a drinking water aquifer. The company "just walked away from it," Estrada said. At another home, oil from an abandoned well is seeping into a family's front yard. "It looks like there's grass on it, but when you walk into it, you sink into that heavy crude stuff that has been sitting there for years." The owner claimed the well was plugged in 1975, but Estrada suspects otherwise. While most leaks are slow at abandoned wells, they have been known to burst in the kind of powerful blowout seen at BP's Deepwater Horizon well on April 20. For example, an abandoned well blew out in February 2000 in Caldwell County, Texas, that state's Railroad Commission reports. No one was hurt.
States from Pennsylvania to California have developed special programs to raise money and seal old wells before they contaminate fresh water with oil, gas or brine from underground. The states correct faulty plugging or seal wells where companies just abandoned them, mostly at inland wells but sometimes in near-shore state waters. Commercial oil drilling dates back to the second half of the 19th century, when owners simply walked away from old wells, perhaps covering them with a metal sheet, a boulder or a log so a cow wouldn't break its leg. States first began setting rules for sealing old wells in the late 1930s. California regulators took a harder look in the 1970s, when some buildings were damaged by oil and gas leaks from abandoned wells. In one case, oil broke through a Newport Beach home's concrete foundation and flooded the kitchen.
Many states impose tougher plugging rules than the federal government. California regulators, for example, are generally on hand to witness plugs placed in a well for abandonment. Then they perform their own tests. They're even more careful when the well is in state water, within three miles of shore. "If it's offshore, the division makes an even extra effort," said geologist Richard Baker, who recently retired as a district supervisor for California's Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. "If a well leaks onshore, it's much easier to get a rig in there and do the well work required to kill the well and make it safe. When you're in the offshore environment, it's more difficult," he said. Yet regulators for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, which has been overseeing federal leases in the Gulf, acknowledge they rarely inspect plugging work or monitor abandoned wells.