Ohio gains ground on a hidden hazard: More than a century’s worth of abandoned oil and gas wells

Ohio gains ground on a hidden hazard: More than a century’s worth of abandoned oil and gas wells

Forgotten, derelict, and often leaky, these so-called orphan wells could number in the thousands.

Having the smell of rotten eggs permeate the halls and classrooms of your school is pretty gross, but when you have to evacuate because the building is filling with methane, a flammable gas, it’s downright scary. That’s what happened in 2014 to the 375 students and teachers of Admiral King Elementary School in northeastern Ohio. After five long weeks searching for the source of the gas, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) discovered it in a strange place: under the gym. An old oil and gas well that nobody knew was there had begun to leak. Three months and more than $100,000 later, the students were able to safely return to school.

The school’s students and faculty were lucky. In 2017, a similar methane buildup, this one caused by an abandoned and subsequently severed gas line connected to an oil and gas well, caused an explosion in a Colorado home that killed a man and his brother-in-law, both 42, and seriously injured his wife.

In addition to being serious explosion hazards, abandoned fossil fuel wells can contaminate groundwater with oil and other toxic chemicals, such as lead and arsenic. Steve Irwin, ODNR spokesman and contract manager for the agency’s abandoned well program, says, “We feel very strongly that, if unaddressed, orphan wells pose a threat to citizens and the environment.”

ODNR has plugged more than 2,000 so-called orphan wells since the 1970s, but at least 737 remain. Ohio had 50,000 oil and gas wells in production in 2017, but since the 1860s, when Ohio drilled its first oil well, some 275,000 have followed. Potentially, tens of thousands more could be out there that we don’t know about.

ODNR says the additional funds allow it to more adequately staff its program and pay for well capping, which can get pricey—anything from a few grand to $200,000. Irwin says one of the biggest challenges of plugging wells is overcoming all their surprises. The first priority is containment. The well operator (or, if orphaned, a hired contractor) works with an ODNR inspector to make sure the well’s oil and gas aren’t migrating into groundwater or elsewhere.

An important consideration, says NRDC energy expert Amy Mall, is making sure an orphan well program “holds oil and gas producers accountable for cleaning up their dangerous messes.” When wells are permitted, she says, the government should ensure there will be money to clean up and properly plug them afterward. Current oil and gas well owners in Ohio pay a surety bond ($5,000 per well or $15,000 per multi-well project), which helps cap their wells after completion, but Mall says that still isn’t enough.

At least 75 percent of some 3.5 million oil and gas wells drilled in North America are no longer in production. Between 1988 and 2009, the Bureau of Land Management spent $3.78 million to plug wells on federal land. States are responsible for finding, funding, and plugging their own orphaned wells.

By Austyn Gaffney, NRDC