More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water.
Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance. They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended that U.N. member countries start tracking and publishing the amount of methane leaching from their abandoned oil and gas wells after scientists started flagging it as a global warming risk. So far, the United States and Canada are the only nations to do so.
The U.S. figures are sobering: More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The actual amount could be as much as three times higher, the EPA says, because of incomplete data. The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than 2 million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged.
A school district in Beverly Hills, California, was saddled with a bill of at least $11 million to plug 19 oil wells on the property of its high school, after a judge in 2017 absolved Venoco LLC – the bankrupt company that had been operating the wells – of any responsibility for clean-up because other creditors took priority. The city of Beverly Hills is contributing another $11 million to the job.
“This is an incredible amount of money” siphoned away from education, said Michael Bregy, superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.
State and federal regulations normally require drillers to pay an up-front bond to cover future cleanups if they go belly-up. But the rules are a patchwork, with wildly differing requirements, and they seldom leave governments adequately funded. In Pennsylvania, for example, it would take several thousand years to plug its estimated backlog of 200,000 abandoned oil wells at the current rate of spending, according to data from the state regulator.
The pollution threat goes beyond climate change. Leaks from abandoned wells have been found to contaminate groundwater and soil. In extreme cases, gas from abandoned wells has caused explosions.
In Ohio and Texas, state regulators have each found an average of around two groundwater contamination incidents per year related to orphaned wells, according to research by the Groundwater Protection Council published in 2011 and dating to the 1980s.
In April 2017, for example, neighbors of Ohio farmer Stan Brenneman alerted him to the smell of oil coming from a drainage ditch on his 111-acre corn and soybean farm near the town of Elida, Brenneman told Reuters. The ditch drains water from the farm and carries it into rivers, streams and eventually Lake Erie.
Ohio’s Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management excavated 800 feet of the farm’s drainage system to find a well casing – about 130 years old – releasing oil three feet underground. The plugging operation took two months to complete and cost the state $196,915, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
More recently, in 2018, the U.S. EPA was alerted to the presence of nearly 50 abandoned oil and gas wells on Navajo Nation lands within the borders of Utah and New Mexico that were bubbling water at the surface. Tests showed the way from some of the wells contained potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, sulfate, benzene and chloride.
The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency said plugging the wells would require “major funds” and that, in the meantime, the public had been warned not to drink the water.
We suggest cleanup the old before starting any new projects.