Each year, the county treasurer identifies all parcels in the county that are five or more years delinquent on property taxes. Unless the taxes have been deferred or the owners are bankrupt, the parcels become eligible to be included in a spring “tax sale” in which properties are sold at auction. The amount of taxes due would be taken out of the sale price and paid to the county, and any amount left over from the sale would be sent to the previous property owner.

“Fortunately, Grand County hasn’t had to bring any properties to tax sale for quite some time,” said County Treasurer Chris Kauffman at the May 4 Grand County Commission meeting. Kauffman was recommending that the commission indefinitely defer taxes on two currently delinquent parcels in the county. The parcels are not land; rather, they are apparently abandoned, unproductive oil and gas wells on leased federal properties and owned by energy companies, who Kauffman said the treasurer’s office has not been able to contact. He recommends deferring the taxes to prevent the parcels going to tax sale, because, he explained, if the county ends up responsible for the equipment, that could be a liability.

“If they’re not worth as much at this point, and no one bids on them, and the county becomes the owner, then the county would be on the hook for any environmental cleanup or maintenance or shutting in of these wells that needs to happen,” Kauffman said.

He went on to say that if the county is at some point able to contact the property owners, they can still pay their taxes.

“What’s more likely to happen,” Kauffman explained, “is at some point the state is going to say that you have these wells sitting out there that aren’t producing—it’s no longer worth enough to put on the tax roll.” At that point, Kauffman said he would bring those delinquent taxes before the commission for cancellation.

Commissioner Sarah Stock asked if abandoning wells and equipment and failing to pay taxes was a common practice in Grand County; Kauffman acknowledged that this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

As part of an economic revitalization plan called the American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden is calling for putting people to work on, among many other projects, capping orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned mines. Such wells can pose health and environmental hazards. According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, there are about 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States; these include both plugged and unplugged non-producing wells.