Walking onto a potential cleanup site, Jim Waite knows the signs. The field inspector for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission eyes the weathered concrete and orange, crusty pipes. He might dip his fingers into the standing water covered with a rainbow sheen and rub them together. Then he knows if the water is oily or if the sheen is created by rotting grass and the green goo from algae.
Most of the time, Waite can judge whether the site is an abandoned oil and gas drilling site. An inspector with the Corporation Commission for 13 years and a lease operator with Chevron prior to that, Waite has the experience to judge if a site qualifies for cleanup paid for by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board.
“Until the OERB came along, there was little we could do for landowners,” Waite said. “And even today, when they call us and we explain that the OERB can clean their land, they cannot believe it costs them nothing.”
Waite sees dozens of sites annually. He recommended 46 sites for restoration in his “best” year. That same year the OERB named him Inspector of the Year for his efforts.
The OERB, established in 1993, restores abandoned well sites at no cost to landowners. Since 1994, the agency has dedicated $40 million to restoring nearly 10,000 orphaned and abandoned well sites across the state. The agency currently restores two to three sites per day. The OERB’s mission is to educate the public through advertising and create school curricula to educate schoolchildren about the state’s energy industry.
“This is the most historic part of the state,” Waite said. “You had more production, and it was a lot shallower.”
Production over the past century has come in waves, he said.
“There was production in the early 1900s,” he said. “Those were abandoned and plugged. There was more activity in the 1950s. That production was plugged and abandoned. Then in 1980s you had another surge come along.”
So, Waite often discovers historical and newer wells in the same area, he said.
OERB has cleaned 209 sites in Tulsa County. Creek County has had 1,178 projects. Project totals in surrounding counties include 367 in Rogers County, 36 in Wagoner County, 369 in Okmulgee County and 193 in Osage County.
Waite recently revisited a cleanup site near 33rd West Avenue and the Creek Turnpike. Eighteen months ago, the eight-acre site was full of broken concrete, an oil tank and pump house. No responsible party was found, and the remnants appeared to be of a gasoline plant, Waite said. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the fuel plants were a common site throughout the region as operators refined petroleum products in the field rather than bother transporting the raw commodity to a refinery.
On those sites that Waite is not sure about their classification — whether they qualify for cleanup by the OERB — he talks to Edmond-based Beacon Environmental, which oversees site remediation. Beacon performs soil samples and, once the work is approved, contracts for cleanup, any burial of debris and replanting of the site.
Like many others, Waite inspected the rural Tulsa County property, which sits in a flood plain next to Polecat Creek near the Creek County Landfill and east of 33rd West Avenue. He checked land records, the OCC’s well records and files at the Land Conservation Office. Once he exhausted his search, he submitted the paperwork to the OERB. One of his most gratifying projects was in Rogers County.
“That was a bad area,” he said. “There was a lot of old stuff, pollution.”
Salt water, a by-product of drilling, had been poured into the land and created scarring. Metal machinery and concrete also littered the site.
“It felt real good to clean that site, knowing we were able to do something good for the landowner,” Waite said. “Helping people is what makes the job satisfying.”
Partners in Cleanup
The OERB works in a partnership with the Corporation Commission. All well sites addressed by the OERB are referred by the OCC. When a field inspector like Waite finds a site that he thinks qualifies for the OERB program, the OCC conducts research to see if a responsible party can be found and locates any records that may exist on the site, said Matt Skinner, OCC spokesman. The program applies only to abandoned sites, or sites for which there is no responsible party.
“The OCC takes care of all cleanup under the ground while the OERB does the cleanup above ground,” Skinner said. “The OERB cannot do a surface cleanup unless the OCC has first plugged the well.”
The commission has always been responsible for plugging wells and handling environmental remediation of all polluted oil and gas sites in Oklahoma, abandoned or otherwise, Skinner said.
“Prior to the OERB, the major problem was that even when we took care of all the environmental problems under the surface, there was no way to pay for cleaning up the surface of trash, debris, old salt kills of abandoned sites,” Skinner said. “The OERB program changed all that.”
Well pluggings on abandoned sites are paid for by a well plugging fund at the OCC. That cash comes from a fee assessed on all oil and gas producers in Oklahoma. The OERB’s budget comes from what oil and natural gas producers and royalty owners voluntarily contribute. In the most recent fiscal year, ending June 30, OCC field inspectors referred 471 sites to the OERB program. The OCC has four districts that cover the state. The District 1 office in Bristow, covers northeast Oklahoma. In 2008, that office submitted 217 projects for remediation, said Jennifer Billings, OERB spokeswoman.
“These projects provided 50 percent of all the projects submitted to the OERB in 2008,” she said.
District 1 covers the part of the state that has had drilling activity for more than 100 years. Also, oil and gas deposits in this part of the state generally are shallow by drilling standards — 1,500 feet. The result is thousands of abandoned sites, Waite said.