Saga of an Oil Well (The Horseshoe Gallup Field Sacrifice Zone Part II)
Tracing the lives of two oil wells and the companies that operate them
Note: This is Part II of a two-part series on the Horseshoe Gallup oil field in northwestern New Mexico. Read Part I.
Arizona Exploration drilled the Petro-Atlas Bolack 1 well in 1956, marking the first oil and gas development in the Horseshoe Gallup Field in northwestern New Mexico. This sparked an oil-rush in the field—which includes Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Indian allotment, federal, and state lands—with a dozen or so operators drilling hundreds of wells over the ensuing half decade. Early operators included Standard Oil, El Paso Natural Gas, Pan American Petroleum, Condor Oil, Mobil, and Atlantic Refining Co.
The field’s wells reportedly had very steep decline curves, meaning production was high during the first few months after drilling, but dropped rapidly after that. In order to coax some more oil out of the field, various operators launched water-flooding operations in the early 1960s, meaning they injected large quantities of water into the field to stimulate the wells.
And when I say large quantities, I mean the companies injected as much as 30,000 barrels of water per day (1 barrel=42 gallons). That came from groundwater wells scattered throughout the field, and by 1964 the companies had sucked 630 million gallons of water from the aquifer, causing groundwater levels to drop some 700 feet. This surely would have dried out springs and domestic wells in the area.
As the field was bled dry (of both oil and water) and the wells went from gushers to strippers—marginal wells that produce less than 10 barrels per day—the big operators plugged and abandoned their wells or sold out to smaller, less financially stable firms. In many instances, the wells were then traded back and forth between marginal companies and even individuals for years. Sometimes the owners went belly up or just vanished into the ether, leaving the taxpayers to pick up the tab.
Using New Mexico oil conservation division records, court documents, press releases, and Securities and Exchange Commission reports, we traced the long and twisted lives of two wells in the Horseshoe Gallup Field, the State Senate 002 and the NE Hogback 53, and the companies that own them. They illustrate the way in which wells, which are not only a blight on the landscape but also tend to ooze methane and other pollutants, can be passed around like properties on a Monopoly board between companies that lack the wherewithal to properly operate or clean them up. But it also shows how regulators miss opportunities to hold companies accountable before they go broke.
These wells are not anomalies, by any means. Dozens of wells like these ones are strewn across the Horseshoe Gallup Field, wells that haven’t produced any oil or gas in years, that are owned by non-existent or insolvent operators, and that are still considered active, going concerns by state and federal regulators.
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