Idle wells could be big source of methane releases

Idle wells could be big source of methane releases

Uncapped, idle oil wells could be leaking millions of kilograms of methane each year into the atmosphere and surface water, according to a study by the University of Cincinnati.

Amy Townsend-Small, an associate professor of geology and geography in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, studied 37 wells on private property in the Permian Basin of Texas, the largest oil production region on Earth. She found that seven had methane emissions of as much as 132 grams per hour. The average rate was 6.2 grams per hour.

A 2016 study by Townsend-Small found a similar issue in inactive wells she tested in Colorado, Wyoming, Ohio and Utah. Spread across the estimated 3.1 million abandoned wells, the leaking methane is equivalent to burning more than 16 million barrels of oil, according to government estimates.

Five of the inactive wells Townsend-Small studied were leaking a brine solution onto the ground, in some cases creating large ponds.

Previous studies have found the basin generates 2.7 billion kilograms of methane per year or nearly 4% of the total gas extracted. That’s 60% higher than the average methane emissions in oil and gas production regions nationally. This was attributed to high rates of venting and flaring due to a lack of natural gas pipelines and other gas production infrastructure.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that scientists have linked to climate change. If the rate of methane leaks UC observed were consistent across all 102,000 idled wells in Texas, the 5.5 million kilograms of methane released would be equivalent to burning 150 million pounds of coal each year, according to an estimate by the magazine Grist and nonprofit news organization the Texas Observer

By Michael Miller, UC News