Oil and gas producers have been plugging wells for almost as long as they’ve been drilling them – since 1859. When a well reaches the end of its lifecycle, the borehole is sealed and closed for good.
The problem is abandoned and orphan wells. These are the ones left uncapped by irresponsible producers – many of which were small time wildcatters of days past. Some of these abandoned wells are leaking methane and seeping oil and brine. States are working to seal these wells.
No one knows for certain how many abandoned wells exist in the U.S. Estimates place the number at about 2 million. Many of these wells are what the industry calls “orphans” that have no financially solvent owner to take responsibility for them.
Some states require the landowner to plug these orphan wells, at an average cost of about $20,000, even if the landowner only acquired the orphan upon purchase of the land. One such state is South Dakota.
Wells are capped by filling them with concrete after removing the tubing and casing from the borehole.
Ohio and a few other states have a different approach. Oil companies must pay a severance tax to fund the proper capping of orphan wells. In Ohio, monies are held in a fund administered by the chief the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas.
But even this approach has its problems. The ODNR is capping wells at such a slow pace that it would take 24 years to cap known orphan wells, alone – not to mention the undiscovered and unreported orphan wells.
A recently introduced bill in the Ohio House of Representatives would force the ODNR to expedite the capping of these forgotten wells. The legislation is sponsored by Representatives Andy Thompson (R-Marietta) and Sean O’Brien (D-Bazetta). It would require the ODNR to inspect and classify such wells and to plug them in a timely manner. Wells categorized as “distressed-high priority” would need to be capped in six months or less.
The legislation would allow property owners to report orphan wells without fear that they’ll be saddled with remediation costs.
“Last time they raised the severance tax, they said a good chunk would go toward dealing with remediation of orphan wells,” Thompson explained. “To date, we’ve seen no evidence of any progress in fixing these wells.”
Thompson said the bill would require evaluating the wells, prioritizing them and ultimately capping them.
West Virginia is another state that uses funds collected from oil industry operators to pay for closing orphan wells. The state has an estimated 13,000 abandoned wells. Pennsylvania utilizes an oil operator surcharge to remediate their orphans. PA has no less than 200,000 abandoned wells waiting to be sealed.
Locating abandoned wells isn’t always easy, but there are some obvious indicators – like the presence of old windmills, hand pumps, abandoned farmsteads, or a simple pipe sticking out of the ground. Wells were often drilled near outbuildings and were housed in small sheds. Sometimes wells were even located in the basement of a home.
Other indicators of the presence of an abandoned well are depressions supporting aquatic vegetation, such as cattails, in an otherwise dry area. Often, wells were hand dug and are large diameter wells constructed of concrete, wood, bricks, rock, or other materials around the perimeter of the well.
California charges an industry assessment to fund the capping of orphan wells. Los Angeles, alone, has about 900 of them.
Abandoned wells are not limited to the U.S., it’s a global problem. They are prevalent in the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Canada and Mexico, to name a few places. There are an estimated 20-30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide. Unfortunately, most nations do not keep track of them or attempt to remediate these forgotten wells.
Featured photo: Texaco Inc. Photograph Collection, Courtesy Sam Houston Regional Library, Liberty, Texas