Special Report: Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace
More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water. And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand, according to bankruptcy lawyers, industry analysts and state regulators.
Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance. They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.
They also pose a serious threat to the climate that researchers and world governments are only starting to understand, according to a Reuters review of government data and interviews with scientists, regulators, and United Nations officials. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended that U.N. member countries start tracking and publishing the amount of methane leaching from their abandoned oil and gas wells after scientists started flagging it as a global warming risk. So far, the United States and Canada are the only nations to do so.
The U.S. figures are sobering: More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day.
The actual amount could be as much as three times higher, the EPA says, because of incomplete data. The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than 2 million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged.
The problem is less severe in Canada, where the bulk of oil production comes from oil sands mining instead of traditional drilling. The government estimated that its 313,000 abandoned wells emitted 10.1 kt of methane in 2018, far less than in the United States.
The global impact is harder to measure. The governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – which round out the top five world oil-and-gas producers – did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on their abandoned wells and have not published reports on the wells’ methane leakage.
Researchers say it’s impossible to accurately estimate global emissions from leaky abandoned wells without better data. But a rough Reuters calculation, based on the U.S. share of global crude oil and natural gas production, would place the number of abandoned wells around the world at more than 29 million, with emissions of 2.5 million tonnes of methane per year – the climate-damage equivalent of three weeks of U.S. oil consumption.