Using data provided by US states, the Environmental Defense Fund and researchers at McGill University have identified 81,000 orphan wells in America. These are oil and gas wells that are inactive, unplugged, and have no solvent owner of record. Why should we care if there is a hole in the ground in South Succotash? Because those wells continue to emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. They may also be polluting the groundwater around them, making it unsafe for drinking or irrigating crops.
According to the EDF, the states, federal agencies and Native American tribes responsible for plugging and remediating these orphan wells often don’t have the money they need to cap them and clean them up effectively.
There is a proposed law called the REGROW Act pending in the clown show known as the US Congress that would create tens of thousands of jobs to remediate these orphan wells, but of course it is going nowhere because multi-millionaire coal baron Joe Manchin says protecting Americans from environmental harm is just too gosh darned expensive. So-called progressive Democrats are also opposed to passing the proposed law unless it is part of the larger package of legislation included in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill.
Partnering With McGill University
To get a better handle on the problem of orphan wells, EDF partnered with researchers at McGill University to develop a data set of all the known wells using official data from the individual states. That project identified approximately 81,000 wells across 28 states. EDF calculates approximately 9 million Americans live within a mile of a documented orphan well. Of those, 4.3 million live in communities of color and 550,000 are children younger than 5 who are especially vulnerable to health problems associated with air pollution.
EDF says the map is a fair portrayal of the location and density of documented orphan wells around the country, with especially dense swaths in Appalachia, the industrial Midwest, the Southern plains into the western Gulf Coast, and urban Southern California.
The EPA estimates that methane emissions from over 2 million inactive, unplugged wells, of which documented orphan wells are a subset, range from a CO2 equivalent of between 7 and 20 million metric tons per year. It says any reduction in methane emissions will have a significant positive impact on the environment in the short term.
But are there other orphan wells not shown on the new map? A full accounting of wells with no solvent owner of record might reveal more than one million orphan wells, EDF says, and the EPA says the number could be as high as 3.4 million. In addition, there is a large number of wells that are currently active but producing little or no oil or gas whose owners do not have the capital — estimated at $25,000 to $75,000 per well — to cap them.
You might ask why those who drill these wells aren’t responsible for capping them and cleaning up after themselves, but if so, you clearly do not understand the economic basis of the fossil fuel economy. If companies had to pay for the damage they do to the environment, that would make the whole industry unprofitable, and we couldn’t have that, now could we?
“We have a long way to go before we’ve truly reckoned with the cleanup costs associated with the legacy of onshore oil and gas production in the U.S,” EDF says. “But the REGROW Act is nevertheless a critical down payment on that work, which is essential for the environment and can play a key job creation and retention role during the next several decades of energy transition.” It urges all Americans to contact their elected officials to support passage of the REGROW Act.
A Bipartisan Approach
The legislation is sponsored by Senators Ben Ray Luján (D) of New Mexico and Kevin Cramer (R) of North Dakota. It would “require the Secretary of the Interior to establish a program to plug, remediate and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells and surrounding land.”
“The REGROW Act is a critical step forward in cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells, which can leak methane, contaminate groundwater and create community safety risks,” Luján said in a statement reported by the Washington Post. “New Mexico and so many states across the country need skilled energy workers back to work and focused on the primary goal of plugging every documented orphaned well in the country.”
Senator Cramer said in a statement the legislation is a “pro-jobs and pro-natural resources piece of legislation that would put unemployed oilfield workers back on the job where they can use their skillsets to prevent environmental hazards and make the land in their communities productive again.” You might think this kind of legislation is a no-brainer, and if so, the US Congress is the most appropriate place for it to be considered.
This Just In
Adam Rutkoff, writing in today’s Bloomberg Green, has an interesting perspective on methane. “What can diplomats and leaders do [at COP26] to deliver faster results? Let’s start with methane. This supercharged greenhouse gas is found in the atmosphere at 0.5% the volume of carbon dioxide but accounts for about 25% of the temperature rise. We know where it comes from. We know who’s profiting from letting it leak. (See above for more on that subject.) And, above all, we know cutting methane emissions in half this decade avoids as much as 0.3 C of warming by 2050.
“That’s the breathing room needed for high-stakes talks in Glasgow and all the COPs that follow. It’s just about the fastest, cheapest fix on the table, with a payoff in cooler conditions in less than a generation.”
So, let’s make it happen, all you politicians of the world. Let’s forget about coal, oil, gas, all of which have their deeply entrenched supporters. Let’s forget about carbon emissions, carbon taxes, and carbon capture. Let’s focus all our attention on eradicating methane emissions the way we did with fluorocarbons and the hole in the ozone. It wasn’t perfect, but it did lessen the damage to the atmosphere.
We can do this, people. In fact, we have to do this. The price of failure is simply too high to even contemplate. Tame methane emissions and let the constantly falling price of renewables put all those fossil fuel operations out of business over the next decade or so. Hey, it could happen!
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