The Number of Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells is on the Verge of Exploding.
Bobby Wright says the seed of the idea was planted about a year and a half ago when he and his dad, Bob, were out on his grandparents’ ranch in Carter County, Oklahoma. Wright’s grandfather, Troy Lewellen, once grew pecans and raised cattle on the ranch, but at 83, he was retired and wanted to tie up any loose ends in his affairs. And sitting on his property, about a quarter of a mile from his house, were some very loose ends: three old oil wells.
They might have uncapped wells and old equipment on their property, abandoned by companies that went bankrupt long ago. “They have no recourse to have anyone other than the state to come in and clean it up,” Wright said.
In that case, a landowner might be waiting a long time. The state currently has just over 800 wells on its list of plugging projects, according to a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, and more than 12,000 more on its list of “orphaned” wells. (In Oklahoma, that term refers to abandoned wells that could technically be “adopted” and pumped again — but the spokesperson said “many of them” are fated to move over to the state’s plugging list.) In 2019, the state plugged just 138 abandoned wells.
This isn’t just a problem for Oklahoma. There were more than 50,000 wells on state cleanup lists across the country in 2018, and states estimated there were somewhere between 200,000 to 750,000 more abandoned wells that weren’t in their records. If you include wells that are “idle,” meaning they may still have an owner but haven’t produced any oil or gas in years — and are at risk of getting thrust into state hands if their owners go bankrupt — the count reaches around 2.1 million, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
When wells are left unsealed, they can become pathways for oil, gas, or briny water to migrate into groundwater and soil. The equipment is a hazard for wildlife, livestock, and unsuspecting humans. But increasing attention is being paid to another risk — an unknown number of unplugged wells leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more effective at heating up the planet than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere. At high enough concentrations, methane carries a risk of explosion, and it’s often accompanied by other chemicals that are dangerous to human health, like benzene, a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and low birth weights.
There’s interest in bankrolling solutions at the federal level, but it’s unclear whether the money will ever come through. In July, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide states with $2 billion over five years to create jobs plugging abandoned wells. Its approval came with almost no Republican support, and the legislation has since stalled in the Senate.