Add abandoned oil and gas wells to the seemingly endless list of health and environmental challenges facing Americans today. State cleanup lists across the country alone record more than 50,000 wells that need plugged and remediated, with estimates of the actual number of potentially problematic abandoned wells falling somewhere between 200,000 to 750,000. Add “idle” wells to the list – those that may still have an owner but haven’t produced any oil or gas for many years — and the number skyrockets to 2.1 million, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unsealed wells can often become pathways for oil, gas and/or brine water to migrate into and contaminate groundwater and soil. And that’s just the beginning of the hazards. Potentially more concerning is that an unknown number of these unplugged wells leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 86 times more effective than carbon dioxide at cooking the planet during the first 20 years of its release into the atmosphere. Methane can explode if concentrations become high enough, but, even worse, methane often carries other cancer-causing chemicals, like benzene, into the atmosphere along with it.
The Groundwater Protection Council has long linked leaks from abandoned wells to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination, and orphaned wells have been implicated in numerous public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California in 2019.
The U.S. figures, although incomplete, are sobering nonetheless. EPA data from 2018 calculates that oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane. That works out to the equivalent of consuming approximately 16 million barrels of crude oil in terms of the climate-damage effects. But because the EPA’s data on the actual number of abandoned and idle wells is incomplete, the actual amount is thought to be as much as three times higher.
People are waking up to this problem, and some industry players are organizing and working to try and plug wells and combat these problems. But oftentimes, a solvent owner of the wells is nowhere to be found, so the problem becomes one of needing public or private funding to plug a well. The sheer number of these wells virtually guarantees a multi-generational effort to ameliorate. If you’re interested in how you may be able to help, a starting point can be found at this link. If you believe you or your loved ones or surroundings are being harmed by abandoned well leakage, you should contact an experienced law firm like Bordas & Bordas right away to explore potential remedies.