On a cold afternoon back in January while road tripping, a very strong stench hit my nostrils in Post, Texas. Locals call it “the smell of money”; but it actually is hydrogen sulfide, which is a flammable and dangerous naturally occurring gas in wells anywhere. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system, dizziness, headaches and even death depending on the dose and duration of the exposure.
There is a problem. The smell of hydrogen sulfide in Post comes from abandoned and orphan oil and gas wells, or wells that are not correctly completed. This problem is not particular to Post or to current oil fields. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are over 3 million orphan and abandoned wells in the country. Most of them are under houses, schools, malls, and parks where there used to be oil fields but are now populated cities. Unplugged or unproperly plugged wells can leak gases like hydrogen sulfide and methane and contaminate groundwater.
Across the U.S., the millions of abandoned oil and gas wells are unmapped or poorly mapped. Once a well has been marked as “plugged” -meaning it is no longer producing and has been sealed with cement- they are forgotten with minimal or no monitoring at all. Many states in the U.S. like Texas, California, and Pennsylvania, where hydrocarbon operations started before the turn of the 20th century, have many of these wells. Some of them are so old that the integrity of the casings and plugs are compromised; not to mention that the plugging process was less adequate than it is today or regulations for plugging did not even exist.
Due to the fluctuating and lately declining oil and gas prices, many small and big energy companies are struggling to stay afloat, which has been accentuated by the pandemic. Many of the marginal operators have gone bankrupt which has led to an increase in well abandonment. These companies do not have the money to properly plugged wells and they just leave them to the state to handle. This is a growing problem in many states of the U.S. According to Adam Peltz from the Environmental Defense Fund, states dealing with orphan wells is cyclical, especially after a downturn, but the situation is getting worse over time as states struggle with a backlog of wells dating back decades.
The cost of plugging a well can be as little as $5,000 for shallow wells to hundreds of thousands of dollars for deeper wells. Many wells are in close proximity or within the property of families that happily gave permission to operators to drill on their land in exchange for royalties. But now they are left with abandoned and orphan wells that put their life at risk.
A couple in Karnes county, Texas had to move out of their home of 23 years because of their deteriorating health. Symptoms like chest pains, dizziness, constant fatigue, and difficulty breathing became chronic after they started appearing in 2011 along with the arrival of drilling rigs. For years they called and talked to the operator and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; but their complaints were forgotten and then ignored.
In 2007, a methane leak from abandoned wells caused an explosion at a Colorado construction site. In 2011, the same happened in a home in Pennsylvania. In 2014, an elementary school in Ohio had to be evacuated because of a methane leak coming from an abandoned well found underneath the gym. These are just a few examples of the many from communities affected by drilling activity.
In recent years, some legislators and oil and gas regulators have increased funding for well cleanup and are trying to make it harder for operators to just walk out on their wells. They are also requiring drillers to pay an up-front bond to cover future cleanups. However, with the estimated 3 million abandoned wells, it means billions of dollars are needed to plug or monitor those wells. By 2018, over 8,000 abandoned and orphan oil and gas wells needed to be plugged in Pennsylvania. The year before, they could afford to plug only 6.
People’s health living close to these wells is not the only problem. The EPA did a study in 2017 and calculated that the amount of methane being emitted by abandoned wells in the U.S. could be about 7 MMT CO2e in the worst scenario. If we count all the wells around the world, the impact is harder to measure, especially with incomplete and unpublished data.
The number of abandoned and orphan wells has increased by more than 12% since 2008. Defunct oil and gas companies in the U.S. and Canada rose 50% to 42 in 2019; and it is estimated that due to the pandemic, 73 more companies will go bankrupt this year and 170 more in 2021. This is a serious problem and becomes a fight over who is going to pay for the wells that these companies are leaving behind.
Sources: Reuters, NPR, The Pew Charitable Trusts, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Center for Public Integrity
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