With Bankruptcies Mounting, Faltering Oil and Gas Firms Are Leaving a Multi-Billion Dollar Cleanup Bill to the Public

Yves here. This is extremely frustrating. I scheduled this post how the oil industry is dumping huge costs on citizens and it didn’t fire as set in the backstage. Apologies.

By Justin Mikulka, a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in New York who a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

Amid a record wave of bankruptcies, the U.S. oil and gas industry is on the verge of defaulting on billions of dollars in environmental cleanup obligations.

Even the largest companies in the industry appear to have few plans to properly clean up and plug oil and gas wells after the wells stop producing — despite being legally required to do so. While the bankruptcy process could be an opportunity to hold accountable either these firms, or the firms acquiring the assets via bankruptcy, it instead has offered more opportunities for companies to walk away from cleanup responsibilities — while often rewarding the same executives who bankrupted them.

The results may be publicly funded cleanups of the millions of oil and gas wells that these companies have left behind. In a new report, Carbon Tracker, an independent climate-focused financial think tank, has estimated the costs to plug the 2.6 million documented onshore wells in the U.S. at $280 billion. This estimate does not include the costs to address an estimated 1.2 million undocumented wells.

Greg Rogers, a former Big Oil advisor, and co-author of a previous Carbon Tracker report on the likely costs of properly shutting down shale wells, suggested to DeSmog that oil and gas companies have factored walking away from their cleanup responsibilities into their business planning.

“The plan is that these costs will be transferred, these obligations will be transferred to the state at some point,” Rogers told DeSmog, “Why would a company want to go out and spend hundreds of millions of dollars plugging all of these wells when it could instead pay its executives?”

Despite federal and state laws requiring oil and gas companies to clean up and properly cap and abandon wells, there is overwhelming evidence that this is not happening.

One major reason why is that often, regulators lack the power to enforce compliance once the permits to drill the wells have been issued.

The best method to guarantee the wells are properly capped and abandoned is for regulators to require the companies to put up the money to do that before the well is drilled. This is most often done via a process known as surety bonding. 

However, if the amount of money required for bonding is small enough, there is no incentive for companies to spend the additional money to properly cap the wells once the wells are no longer producing oil or gas. From a business standpoint, it is smarter for the well owner to walk away from the obligations at that point.

The new report from Carbon Tracker also notes that current bonding monies allocated for well cleanup are equal to roughly only 1 percent of that total expected cost.

State and federal regulators have failed to require sufficient bonding from the industry, giving the industry no incentive to spend the money to properly cap and abandon wells once they are no longer producing significant amounts of oil and gas.

Rogers told DeSmog that although companies can’t use the bankruptcy process to avoid cleanup liabilities, the reality is that when state regulators are forced to argue for these cleanup costs during the bankruptcy process, they may simply be “first in line when there is nothing there.”

This problem might have been avoided if state regulators had refused to grant drilling permits to oil and gas companies without proper bonding. Rob Schuwerk, executive director of Carbon Tracker and co-author of the two recent reports with Greg Rodgers, explained that states have the strongest negotiating position at the outset of the permitting process.

“The states have unnecessarily given industry the leverage,” Schuwerk told DeSmog, “There is no reason for any state to ever have said, ‘We’re not going to require you to put something up to clean up these wells.’

“It’s not like they [the oil companies] could’ve said, ‘we don’t want to put that money up so we’re going to go drill somewhere else.’ You’re really ultimately going to drill where the oil is.”

Instead, states have typically allowed the industry to promise to clean up, instead of requiring adequate bonding in advance to fund the process.

“The states haven’t done anything,” said Rogers, “The oil producing states are very much in the mode of ‘we want to encourage more oil and gas production.’”

But as more and more companies file for bankruptcy, state governments are finding they cannot hold them responsible for their environmental liabilities.

Environmental Liabilities and Bankruptcy Law 

At the June 28, 2018 meeting of the Industrial Commission of North Dakota, North Dakota’s top oil and gas official announced the state had hired a new special assistant attorney general for oil and gas bankruptcy cases.

The meeting notes show that Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, was concerned about bankrupt shale drillers walking away from liabilities.

“We need to be able to track bankruptcies and act quickly to make sure that the judge is aware of North Dakota’s situation,” Helms said, “Bankruptcy does not clear the obligation for environmental cleanup.”

This is where bankruptcy laws gets murky. While bankruptcy does not allow for environmental cleanup obligations to be cleared, it also doesn’t specifically state that those obligations cannot be cleared.

However, Helms’ statement is supported by existing case law.

A 1986 Supreme Court decision concluded that regarding environmental cleanup liabilities, “A bankruptcy court does not have the power to authorize an abandonment without formulating conditions that will adequately protect the public’s health and safety.”

Two years later, the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit in Texas reached a decision supporting this case law. In that case, the oil well owner had sold off the valuable wells, and attempted to walk away from the remaining wells as well as the responsibility to properly cap and abandon them.

The court found that “there is no question that under Texas law, the owner of an operating interest is required to plug wells that have remained unproductive for a year … a combination of Texas and federal law placed on the trustee an inescapable obligation to plug the unproductive wells.”

That decision concluded that “It therefore matters not whether the bankrupt estate produced any oil or received any revenue from the wells. As the operator, it was required to plug them.”

But despite this case law establisheing that environmental liabilities like oil and gas well cleanup costs can not be discharged via bankruptcy, the very nature of bankruptcy makes walking away the most likely outcome. Companies go bankrupt because they don’t have enough money to pay the bills — and environmental liabilities often can be a very large bill.

“The bankruptcy court process is a bit like the Wild West,” said Rogers. “There is a lot of flexibility, they go very fast in my understanding and the judges tend to have a lot of discretion.”

The shale industry is in the middle of a historic wave of bankruptcies, Reuters reports. The results so far indicate that wells are being abandoned by operators in bankruptcy, and that despite the existing laws, the cleanup bill will have to be picked up by the public.

Abandonment via Bankruptcy in Colorado

Despite the existing laws and legal precedent, companies are using the bankruptcy process to shift cleanup costs to the public. Carbon Tracker estimates the cost to plug and abandon wells in Colorado at $7 billion. Colorado’s current bonding requirements for oil and gas wells require only a small fraction of the known costs to plug and abandon wells.

Colorado oil and gas companies can post a bond of $60,000 to cover up to 100 wells, or $100,000 to cover any total of wells over 100. It isn’t hard to understand the massive underfunding of cleanup responsibilities when the cost to bond for over 100 wells is less than the known cost to cap and abandon one well.

In 2019, the Colorado oil and gas operator Petroshare filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when it could no longer pay back its loans. The owner of those loans chose to take Petroshare’s assets as a result of the bankruptcy — or at least the assets that still had value.

In the bankruptcy process, the state of Colorado let the new company abandon any of the 89 wells that it didn’t want, effectively leaving the cleanup costs to the taxpayers of Colorado. Carbon Tracker estimates that 67 wells could now be the state’s responsibility, with a potential price tag of almost $12 million to plug and abandon them properly.

Fram Americas, a Norwegian-owned company that declared bankruptcy in Colorado in 2019, had posted a bond of $300,000 for its wells. But in its bankruptcy filings the company listed plugging and abandonment costs of close to $6 million.

Fram claimed it had no money to plug the wells and Fram’s bankruptcy attorney Kenneth Buechler explained the company’s position.

“I assume that the government authorities will plug the wells since the companies are no longer in business,” Buechler said.

Buechler’s assumption was on target. With such low bonding requirements, the money to clean up was simply not there, and now the state of Colorado is stuck with the bill, while its Norwegian owners have dodged responsibility.

As Carbon Tracker reported, the failure of the bonding requirements at state and federal levels gives companies incentive to spend money that might have gone to plugging and abandoning wells to other line items, like executive compensation. Once all the money is spent, they can simply walk away from cleanup obligations via bankruptcy, while the remaining valuable assets are passed on to new investors.

Bankruptcy as Business Model

In 2018 DeSmog highlighted that Floyd Wilson, the CEO of oil company Halcón Resources, had profited during the bankruptcy process. This year, the research organization Documented has reported on multiple examples of CEOs being rewarded by the firms they led into bankruptcy, rather than fired, noting that the bankruptcy process “may open new avenues for CEOs to enrich themselves at the expense of workers, creditors, and equity owners.”

This lack of executive accountability for financial failure is another incentive for companies to not consider properly funding cleanup costs, especially if the trend of letting companies walk away from liabilities in bankruptcy continues.

Shale oil and gas companies have sustained losses of over $300 billion dollars in the past decade. But the executives who oversaw those losses have been some of the best paid in America. And many of these same executives have received retention bonuses to remain with the very same companies they bankrupted, then hired to take over the new company that emerges from the bankruptcy.

The combination of flawed executive pay incentives and the option of just walking away from environmental liabilities in bankruptcy combine to incentivize executives to ignore the costs of environmental cleanup.

Last October, DeSmog asked, “Will the Public End up Paying to Clean up the Fracking Boom?” The answer increasingly looks to be a very solid “yes.”

Orphan wells in the best of times are a big deal. The potential for a coming tsunami of additional orphan wells is of concern to many,” Adam Peltz, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Politico in May.

Concern is growing in many states about having to pay for orphan wells. According to the Bismarck Tribune, Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, last year raised the alarm about the issue of companies abandoning wells, saying, “It’s starting to become out of control.”

Following the lead of the coal industry, as The New Republic notes, bankruptcy has become good business for the failing oil and gas industry, which is using loopholes in the process to shift billions in costs for closing down wells and remediating the environment around them to the public. Far from paying a price for this mismanagement, company executives are being rewarded with lucrative pay and steady jobs.

This is the first in a series of DeSmog articles investigating the ways that oil and gas companies are shifting environmental liabilities to the public.

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28 comments

  1. rick shapiro

    Make no mistake about it; failure to require adequate bonding for a clearly necessary cleanup is nothing other than a public subsidy to the oil industry, one that dwarfs subsidies to green energy. Let the oil companies spread the risk by purchasing bankruptcy insurance, or by other Coasian strategies; the responsibility of the state is to level the energy playing field by requiring bonds.

    Reply
    1. Jesper

      To do so then there has to be:
      -an insurance company large, solid and liquid enought to be able to pay out on the insurance
      -that insurance company has to be able to accurately price the risk (too high and it will stop the business, too low and it will subsidise the business and might even go out of business leaving the bill to the general public)

      The only entity that can guarantee to be able to honour such insurance is as far as I can tell the government. The calculation of the risk is likely to be based on so many assumptions and approximations that it will be impossible to get a useful answer. So I see such a scenario as ending up with being that private interests get all the profits/rewards leaving all the losses/risks with the general public.
      With such a scenario then it might just be better to nationalise all as then the general public will get also the profits/rewards instead of being stuck with only the losses/risk.

      Reply
    2. timbers

      It would be more efficient for the Fed to immediately in one move, raise interest rates to a market level, their “true” level, the level they ought to be and should have always been. That rate might be 3 or 4 or 5%. It should do this tomorrow. The precise rate is debatable but is clearly is not 0% and is more likely 3-5%.

      BTW IMO, this might also strangle out of existence companies like UBER and Lyft. Maybe Netflix, too.

      This action would end the Fed’s super massive subsidies to these projects. It would also greatly reduce wealth inequality.

      Also, the Fed should end it super massive subsidies to these projects via QE.

      Reply
  2. fwe'zy

    Much gratitude for these serious writers doing serious investigative work into extractive and inhumane charades. I’m just fwe’zy: aware as all get out.

    Reply
  3. FluffytheObeseCat

    It’s not only oil and gas. Bonds for remediation and clean up of open pit coal in Wyoming are wholly inadequate, and the state (or more likely federal) government will be picking up the cost of doing it over the next decade. Hard rock mining is little better.

    Obviously under-insuring clean up is a huge de facto subsidy to extractive industries across commodities.

    Reply
  4. kiers

    Let’s see…..oil frackers have already passed-on exploratory dry well “risks” on to utilities rate payers; Lenders have been issuing record amounts of covenant lite (or no restrictions at all) debt; And now the frackers wanna stiff the environmental costs at the back end as well……..Free Enterprise…! Gotta love it.

    Reply
  5. kiers

    To all the red states requesting clean up funds: “I’m sorry y’all, we can’t print the dollar for ya, treasury ain’t yo piggy bank fer yer mis deeds; drink the sludge, kindly”.

    Reply
  6. Tomonthebeach

    Companies using bankruptcies to leave millions of dollars of damage behind is an outrage and Congress is totally responsible for enabling it. They knew. They let it happen. They can fix it. However, we should temper our moral outrage a bit for not caring to demand change. Many areas welcomed the drillers and frackers, chem plants, lead battery recyclers, etc. and even gave them tax breaks. And we the people got something out of it besides jobs – cheaper products. Now it is time to pay the piper. Maybe that will motivate some tougher laws, but —- Citizens United.

    Reply
  7. Adam Eran

    Also overlooked: the depletion allowance. Oil producers (and other extractive industries) can write off 15% of their income for “depletion.” Petroleum uses 97% of that tax break.

    Then there are the Panamanian companies for offshore oil. According to Michael Hudson, they make possible offshoring all profits from imports, avoiding any U.S. taxes.

    And what did the World Bank estimate the worldwide subsidies at…? Something like $1 trillion a year… and both World Bank and IMF say the effective subsidies are incredibly regressive.

    This is beyond too bad…

    Reply
  8. Carla

    Nationalize the companies so that the public that will have to pay for any and all clean-up will reap any future gains that may accrue; fire all the executives. I mean, that’s the very least our fearless leaders can do.

    I know, in my dreams…

    Reply
  9. a different chris

    And underlying all this is the very concept of “clean up”. What does it mean, and is it even possible?

    But nobody wants to touch that.

    Reply
  10. Jack

    This article only reinforces an opinion I have had for some time. This country is never, ever, going to be able to hold people or companies accountable for their actions until the concept of the corporate liability shield is done away with. The whole concept of corporate immunity and personhood needs to be done away with. It is wrecking our environment, allowing corporations to steal billions from the average citizen, and completely compromised our elections.

    Reply
    1. fwe'zy

      So a total overhaul of our production. All for it. If not: So now all corporate limited liability needs to be gone because oil n gas is especially bad? Way to move the goalposts.

      Reply
  11. bob

    Biden still can’t even consider banning fracking.

    Your vote counts! Vote for the guys who work for the oil companies or the guys that work for the oil companies.

    Reply
    1. Telee

      You are absolutely right. Biden is the favored candidate of the corporate democrats because none of his policies threaten the reach and power of the oligarchs. I have voted for Biden to get rid of Trump but should he win the people will still have to fight for significant change to the status quo.

      Reply
      1. witters

        I have voted for Biden to get rid of Trump but should he win the people will still have to fight for significant change to the status quo.

        “Tell’im he’s dreamin'”

        Reply
  12. Telee

    In Pennsylvania, where I live, has hundreds of thousands of abandoned gas wells. Although the industry denies the importance of leaky wells, all wells, oil or gas have a problem with leaking. Over the time of years, the percentage of wells that develop leaks rises over time so that within years at least 30% wells develop leaks. Big problem that the industry doesn’t tell the public however there are companies whose business is plugging wells. However it is cheaper to simply abandon the wells and forget about them. One of the authorities on this is Dr. InGraffea. Here is a link to a talk he gave in PA. on this issue. It is a huge problem for many reasons and the contribution to global warming is one of them. For those interested, here is a link to Dr. Ingraffea’s talk on this subject which emphasizes the seriousness of this problem.

    Reply
    1. Eclair

      Same here in Chautauqua County, NY, right next to PA. My in-laws’ property, where we now live, borders a host of gas wells. Right up the road, there is a big compression station. Most of our neighbors receive ‘free’ gas as partial compensation for having gas wells drilled on ‘their’ land.

      A few years’ ago, before we settled on buying out the in-laws’ property, I looked at land parcels around the county. Almost all had abandoned gas wells on them. When I talked to a lawyer about getting the gas companies to cap them and clean up, he laughed. A bitter laugh. The corporation declares bankruptcy, disappears in a maze of shell companies, the ‘marks’ are left with the problems of leaking gas, bad water, contaminated soil, etc. Plus an ugly, rusting pumping apparatus or two in the middle of the field.

      Reply
  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    Here is a logical and rational approach to paying for cleaning up and leak-plugging the abandoned gas and oil frackwells that “progressives” could “fight for”, if they wish to be seen as if they appear to be “fighting for” it.

    Impose a federal clean-up-and-plug-the-wells tax on all natgas and oil at every UNavoidable stage in its chain-of-sales. Use that money to pay for cleaning up and plugging the wells. Such a forcible tax-for-cleanup plan will have two good outcomes. it will get the gassy leaky wells cleaned up and plugged up. It will also increase the price of gas and oil enough to begin discouraging its use and thereby shrinking the industry.

    Enough such taxes and we can shrink the gas and oil industry down to a size where we can drown it in the bathtub.

    Reply
  14. David Mills

    Have the directors and officers of the corporation sign jointly and severally on the clean up costs (Skin in the Game). I guarantee all future obligations would be fully funded then. If it can be externalized, it will be externalized. This is one of the biggest arguments against “Corporate Personhood”.

    Reply

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