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State spends millions to plug massive well leak in the oil fields of Crane County

A jet of water erupts from a well Railroad Commission of Texas crews work to plug in Crane County.
Courtesy of Sarah Stogner
A jet of water erupts from a well Railroad Commission of Texas crews work to plug in Crane County.

The fountains of brine water that gushed from the ground, forming pools that spread across ranch land in southwest Crane County, have been stopped

The Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator, quickly dispatched crews to find and plug the leak after it was reported on Dec. 7. The effort took over a month to complete, but crews were able to find the well causing the massive leak and plug it on Jan. 29, according to the commission.

Danny Sorrells, the commission’s director of oil and gas, reported to the railroad commissioners at their Jan. 30 meeting that the effort to plug the well cost approximately $2.5 million. Even though the plugging project has been completed, Sorrells said there are still questions surrounding the leak.

“It wasn’t an easy plug, but we plugged it,” he said. “This well is on no map. We went through historical maps, we looked at everything. This is not an oil well, I don’t think. It doesn’t meet the qualifications of an oil well, it’s producing salt water with no real hydrocarbons to speak of.”

According to documents obtained by Marfa Public Radio, at certain points, the leak was releasing over 13,000 gallons of highly saturated salt water an hour. Twenty pits were dug to contain the flowing water as trucks hauled it from the work site throughout the day.

The documents show the Crane County leak was difficult to plug for a number of reasons, including a substantial amount of pressure that was recorded in the well. Emails released by the commission detail multiple instances of water erupting from the well or the surrounding area, including on Jan. 1 when a jet of fluid shot 35 feet into the air.

An aerial photo taken on Jan. 9 of a large brine water leak in Crane County where crews work to contain the flowing water.
Photo Courtesy of Sarah Stogner
An aerial photo taken on Jan. 9 of a large brine water leak in Crane County where crews work to contain the flowing water.

Critics of the railroad commission have voiced their concerns over this leak, saying it’s a threat to local groundwater. However, a spokesperson for the commission previously said that there had been no reports of any contamination as a result of the Crane County leak and more recently the agency said nearby “freshwater zones are protected.”

In a press release, the agency stated, “[The Railroad Commission] acted quickly to remediate the water flow in Crane County because the [The Railroad Commission] will make every effort possible to protect freshwater in Texas.”

However, this part of the West Texas’ oil patch has come into the spotlight in recent years due to a growing list of old wells springing back to life and leaking water laden with salt, dangerous gasses and potentially harmful chemicals, which local officials and landowners worry have already contaminated aquifers.

High-profile examples of these leaks include a 100-ft geyser suddenly erupting from an abandoned Crane County well in 2022 and a body of saltwater — locally called “Lake Boehmer” — that flows from an unplugged well that was originally drilled for oil and gas.

Sorrells announced at the Jan. 30 meeting that the commission is working with researchers at University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology to better understand what is causing wells in this area to leak.

“We have what you call a war room to try to figure out what’s going on in this area. It has unusual geology and unusual water flows.” He said, “We want to get to the bottom of this and stop it.”

Critics of the railroad commission believe oil and gas wastewater being injected underground is increasing subsurface pressure, which is driving many of these leaks.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.