Cleanup of Forest Cove Oil Wells, Tanks Scheduled for Fall

Within the Forest Cove Townhome complex, currently being bought out by Harris County Flood Control, two wells, and three oil and gas storage tanks have been abandoned. The operator, Noxxe Oil and Gas, LLC went out of business in February this year for failure to pay franchise taxes. At least one of the wells has a history of a recent leak that affected the West Fork San Jacinto. The tanks sit rusting and leaning at odd angles. And the pipes connecting them are broken and twisted.

The Texas Railroad Commission has investigated the site numerous times since Harvey and required cleanup and remediation by the operator until the company went out of business. 

Because the operator is now defunct, the Railroad Commission plans to step in and complete the cleanup process once additional funds become available in the next fiscal year starting September 2020.

According to Harris County Flood Control, the Railroad Commission does not believe there is an imminent danger at this time from the existing tank battery and facilities.

However, the Commission says it will likely be an expensive cleanup. At public expense.

Old Oil Field, Old Equipment

These tanks and wells represent a common problem around Lake Houston and the old Humble Oil Field. The Humble field was discovered in 1905 and, to date, has yielded more than 150 million barrels of oil.

However, as fields and wells near the end of their producing life, the economics of production become marginal. Near the end, stripper wells may produce only 10-15 barrels per day – or less. Only operators on shoestring budgets can afford to keep such wells producing at that point. They become hand-me-down wells from operators with deep pockets and big costs to smaller companies with less capital and lower costs.

In theory, that’s how to maximize recovery from a well. However, when problems develop, the smaller companies are sometimes ill-equipped to handle them.

Noxxe Problems Started Early and Persisted

Shortly after incorporation in 2009, Noxxe ran into legal troubles when the company’s own lawyers sued it for non-payment. Noxxe lost the case. Then Noxxe appealed, but the company’s owner failed to appear for a deposition. Eventually, Noxxe’s appeal was denied because it failed to pay court costs.

Other Noxxe problems blew up into headlines after the Memorial Day flood in 2016 when oil slicks were photographed floating from its storage tanks. Another problem surfaced in 2017 when a pipeline from one of their wells on Marina Drive started leaking into the West Fork.

Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC) regulates oil and gas production. Its documents show that Noxxe ignored state regulators on more than one occasion.

The company’s problems with TRRC became visible on April 4, 2017. The Railroad Commission ordered certificates of compliance for the operator cancelled and all pipeline/carrier connections severed.

Then, during Harvey, Noxxe’s operations near the Forest Cove Townhomes and elsewhere on the West Fork became inundated. Again!

Noxxe tanks under water during Harvey in 2017 amidst the Forest Cove Townhomes.

One month after Harvey, Steve Shaffer, the company’s president, took over as his own registered agent.

Days after that, Noxxe moved from 324 Forest Cove Drive to 1120 NASA Parkway.

On October 16, 2018, the Railroad Commission found that Noxxe failed to appear or respond to charges which included:

  • Unpermitted discharges of oil and gas waste
  • Uncontrolled wells left open to the atmosphere
  • Spills from flow lines that impacted surface waters
  • Unreported discharges and spills
  • Fire hazards
  • Improper construction of a firewall around a tank battery
  • Failing to take protective measures re: open-top tanks, skimming pits and collecting pits

Finally, on February 28, 2020, the company forfeited its right to do business in Texas for failure to pay franchise taxes. (However, it still has until this June 28th to get its accounts in order and have its charter reinstated.)

Part of Noxxe’s Legacy in Forest Cove

These pictures below show part of the legacy Noxxe left behind.

Some of the equipment left behind by Noxxe in Forest Cove: tanks and pump-jacks.
This tank seems to lean at about a ten degree angle.
These lean even more.
The plumbing connecting the tanks is disconnected and in disarray.
Tanks are rusted, dented, overgrown and covered with graffiti.

The collapse of oil prices in response to COVID restrictions earlier this year hurt small producers more than large ones. It will be interesting to see how many other stories like this emerge in coming days.

Where to Report Similar Problems

While the abandoned equipment shown above may not represent an imminent threat, it still represents a threat that must be remediated by the state. It is adjacent to the drinking water supply for 2 million people and subject to frequent flooding. Jennifer Parks who used to live in one of the townhomes on Timberline Drive flooded eight times in five years.

If you see similar problems, reach out to the local office of the TRRC at 713-869-5001. 

Posted by Bob Rehak on June 6, 2020

1012 Days After Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.