Abandoned Oil and Gas Sites Are Leaking Methane Across the Country
Millions of inactive sites emit greenhouse gases without a plan to clean them up
Twin beige tanks stand amid stately evergreens in Colorado’s Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Their only companion is a silent pump jack. The inactive oil and gas site not only mars the view; it is also leaking toxic gases known to accelerate climate change.
Video shot by an optical gas-imaging camera shows plumes of methane and volatile organic compounds venting into the atmosphere from valves on top of the tanks. The pad’s operator, unable to pay to clean it up, abandoned the site in 2019, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
“This venting will presumably occur until these sites are cleaned up,” said Andrew Klooster, Colorado field advocate for Earthworks, who filmed the site for the environmental nonprofit in June and reported his findings to state regulators.
“We have to sit here rather uncomfortably because sites like this will continue to pollute,” he added. “It’s a mess when it comes to orphaned wells, honestly.”
The site is among at least 137 wells in Rio Blanco County, on the state’s western slope, that haven’t produced fossil fuels in five years. They join 3.2 million wells nationwide abandoned by energy companies who weren’t required to post large-enough bonds to clean them up. Thousands more are undocumented or at risk of becoming orphaned.
State and federal agencies are now liable for much of this cost—which Carbon Tracker estimated could approach $280 billion to remediate 2.6 million documented onshore wells alone. States collected less than 1 percent of this amount in bonds, the study found, leaving hulking metal tanks and pump jacks to rust in corn fields, forests, and neighborhoods, where they present a health, safety, and climate hazard for people and wildlife.
Methane emissions from inactive oil and gas infrastructure are the 10th-largest source of such pollutants in the United States. The greenhouse gas is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. In 2014, a gas leak from an abandoned well underneath an Ohio elementary school gym forced officials to evacuate students. In West Texas, near the town of Imperial, fluids leaking from decades-old oil wells formed a pond of contaminated water.