|Tens of thousands of potentially dangerous abandoned oil wells dot the United States, particularly in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Photo: Bureau of Land Management. Click to enlarge.|
Backgrounder: Infrastructure Funding Coming Soon for Cleanup of Orphan Oil Wells
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.
By Joseph A. Davis
With the race for $4.7 billion in new cleanup funds already underway, orphan oil wells are going to be a story in 2022 for almost anyone covering climate or energy, especially at the state level.
The money (spread over 10 years) was included in the infrastructure bill Congress passed Nov. 6 and that President Biden signed Nov. 15. To some in the oil industry, the funding looks like jobs. But to environmentalists, it looks more like climate action.
Since the first U.S. oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, many, many more have followed, and many of those ultimately abandoned once they were pumped dry or unprofitable. Nobody knows exactly how many. Some drillers just walked away. Many went out of business and disappeared long ago.
But abandoned oil and gas wells can cause a lot of problems.
Because the borehole may pass through many geological layers, wells can pollute valuable aquifers that supply water for drinking or irrigation. And if wells are not sealed, they can continue to leak gasses like methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) or hydrogen sulfide (which can be unpleasant and toxic). Sometimes the drilling site is littered with pipes and valves, or its soil contaminated with oil or drilling fluids.
Cleaning up a well site
involves much more than
screwing a cap onto a pipe.
Cleaning up a well site involves much more than screwing a cap onto a pipe. In fact, it can involve pulling a considerable length of well casing or other pipe out of the ground with heavy machinery.
Done right, it usually requires filling the empty borehole with cement. This prevents gas, oil or fluids from migrating between geological layers. The cement used is a specialized slurry not very different from what bricklayers use. This is called plugging.
Not only are pipes, valves and equipment removed from the site, but soil and vegetation may be restored.
A properly plugged well will not emit methane — either into the atmosphere or into people’s well water. People are understandably unhappy when they can set the water coming from their kitchen tap aflame.
Well-site cleanups are usually done by specialized contractors. But much of the equipment and skills involved are common with regular drillers. So cleanups can be an antidote to unemployment or slow times in the drilling industry.
Sometimes the owner or party responsible for an abandoned well can be identified — but often they can not. These are called “orphan” wells. Many states already have programs for cleaning up orphan wells. In most cases, however, these have been grievously underfunded.
Ideas for reporting
A key step for environmental journalists who want to cover abandoned wells is to find out which state agencies regulate and fund well cleanup where they are. States have differing structures for this — depending partly on how important and powerful the industry is in that state.
It is also wise to suss out what industry groups and environmental groups are active on drilling issues in a particular state. Check in as well with state groundwater protection and climate agencies.
In many cases, states already have laws or regulations requiring new drillers to put down a bond or financial guarantee that they will clean up a well that is permitted. And in many cases, these guarantees may be insufficient or haphazardly administered.
For old orphan wells, however, funding is often harder to find and may come from a surcharge on permitting fees or the like. Politically, these are harder to collect because drillers do not like them.
There are more of these wells than anyone thinks — nobody really knows how many for sure. They may be on federal land, state or municipal land, private land, tribal land or elsewhere.
Recent efforts to inventory them almost certainly have undercounted them. News was made in 2021 by a joint study by McGill University and the Environmental Defense Fund, which found 81,283 documented orphan wells, half again as many as the 56,000 counted by the quasi-governmental Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
A map produced as part of that study gives an idea of how they are distributed nationally. Some of the hot spots included Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.
One study estimated that about
9 million people — many from
especially vulnerable populations —
live within a mile of an orphan well.
The study estimated that about 9 million people live within a mile of an orphan well, including 4.3 million people of color and 550,000 children younger than 5 — both especially vulnerable populations.
But that count included only documented orphan wells. Recent estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the number of undocumented orphan wells as high as 3.4 million.
Reuters’ Nichola Groom did a feature in 2020 which came up with comparable estimates. Worldwide, the total would be vastly larger, but the U.S. infrastructure bill stops at the border.
The process of distributing infrastructure money has already begun, and states have already declared their interest in getting some of it. It’s too complicated to quickly describe here, but the Interior Department has outlined it.
The infrastructure bill divided the money into three major buckets, one of which will be directly proportional to the number of wells in the state. So far, more than half of the states have declared their interest.
Procedures will be different for state, private, federal and tribal lands.
- Bureau of Land Management: This Interior Department bureau plays the biggest role in distributing federal web cleanup funds.
- EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory: An annual estimate from the federal agency.
- Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission: A group of oil-state governors that provides estimates of orphan wells.
- Environmental Defense Fund: This advocacy group has focused on methane.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.