The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a group that advocates for the conservation of wild land, issued a letter on March 17 that calls on the Bureau of Land Management to conduct a formal audit of inactive wells on federal land.

“What we're looking for with the audit is for BLM to actually do a full analysis of how many (of) what we call orphaned or abandoned wells really do exist on BLM lands in New Mexico,” NM Wild staff attorney Logan Glasenapp said.

Glasenapp said the group wrote the letter asking for the audit right now because the acting state director for the Bureau of Land Management, Melanie Barnes, has a background in biology as opposed to a background in the fossil fuel industry, as prior directors have had. They are hoping Barnes will thus be more mindful of perspectives that don’t include increasing profits in the fossil fuel sector.



There are over 110,000 oil wells in New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral resources. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Division identified 6,000 wells that have not produced oil or gas in over a year. Of those, 2,600 are on federal lands in the state.

An abandoned oil well, or an oil well that is no longer producing and has not been properly closed, poses threats to the surrounding environment, according to Gary Weissmann, a researcher in the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of New Mexico who also worked on abandoned wells in Montana. 

“The wells — when they're completed — they have a steel casing that goes down, that seals off the aquifers and everything else all the way down to where the production zone is. And so that steel casing corrodes over time, especially if there's some reactive gasses in the oil horizon, which is common ... The problem is, once those (are) corroded, then you can get fluids (such as oil) from the reservoir going up into the aquifers,” Weissmann said.

A large part of why NM Wild is asking for the audit is because of how the large oil conglomerates are financially benefiting from not having to properly close their wells, even though not remediating the land around inactive wells legally goes against their lease, according to Glasenapp.

“One of the things that they agreed to (when leasing the land) is that, when that well is no longer producing, they will plug and remediate the land. So the goal (with remediating) is basically (to) make it look like there was never a well pad there … Any company that has not done the work, is saving that much money from not doing the work and continuing to make money by being an active purchaser of leases that are producing oil and gas,”  Glassenapp said.

If an operator or a lessee violates their lease by abandoning an inactive well on federal land, BLM has the authority to revoke their ability to enter future leases, according to Glasenapp and NM Wild. The effects of revoking a company’s ability to enter another lease would have a substantial effect on the economy as it stands, according to Janie Chermak, the chair of the UNM economics department.

“You know, hate or love fossil fuels, it's a pretty big part of the economy right now, and it would have drastic ramifications to simply walk away. That is not to say that (any) company shouldn't have to abide by the rules,” Chermak said.

Chermak said it’s in the best interest of BLM to practice good environmental stewardship. Still, leaving inactive wells unclosed is a short-term money-saving tactic, as closing wells is a costly process and it leaves the door open to reopen a well.

“Well, if the well could come back on the line and produce, and the state gets a tremendous amount of tax revenues from oil and gas, then that would be potentially possibly a good thing,” Chermak said.

Glasenapp said BLM likely hasn’t had the resources or people to do an audit. The state is currently working toward receiving funding for closing orphaned wells on federal land from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act but even this will likely not be enough money to close every well, according to New Mexico Political Report.

BLM did not respond to a request for comment as of the publication of this article.

Madeline Pukite is a Beat Reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @maddogpukite