Some 120,000 U.S. oil wells are abandoned, new research finds – The Washington Post

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Across the country, fossil fuel companies have moved away from thousands of oil and gas wells, leaving them disconnected and idle even as many of those drilling sites emit greenhouse gas emissions and pose a threat. directly to human health. But until recently, states had little incentive to identify these sinks and few resources to plug them.

Now, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act that President Biden signed last year changes the calculus around this growing environmental challenge. The law, which authorized a record $4.7 billion for states’ efforts to plug abandoned wells, sparked a rush among state officials to document wells within their borders.

As a result, states have now reported more than 120,000 total abandoned wells, representing an increase of nearly 50% from the 81,000 wells reported last year, according to a new analysis of state data by researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University. .

Even this figure can mask the true extent of the problem. According to some estimates, the number of undocumented abandoned wells in the United States – those that have not yet been discovered – could be as high as one million.

“It would be wonderful to be able to map all the true orphan wells in the country, of which there could be a million or more, but we can only map the documented ones by definition,” said Adam Peltz, director and senior. lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund who worked on the analysis. “It confirms the principle that this is a big problem. We still have a long way to go to find these wells and control them. »

Abandoned wells – also called “orphan wells” because no owner can be found – can leak toxic substances such as arsenic, formaldehyde and benzene, polluting the air and groundwater. Using census data, the analysis found that 14 million people live within a mile of an orphan well, including 1.3 million adults with asthma. Exposure to air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Orphan wells can also emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes climate change. Responsible for about a third of global warming today, methane traps about 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

Abandoned wells are a huge climate problem

In January, the Department of the Interior announced that states could apply for an initial federal grant of $1.15 billion to fund the closure and cleanup of abandoned wells. The department noted that the grants would be based on three criteria: the number of documented orphan wells in each state, the estimated cost of cleaning up wells in each state, and job losses in each state from March 2020 through November 2021.

“The Department is taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to implementing the Orphan Oil and Gas Wells Program which aims to get money to the states as quickly as possible while being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars” , Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

In August, the Interior awarded an initial $560 million to 24 states to begin plugging and cleaning up more than 10,000 orphan wells. Twenty-two states received $25 million each, while Arkansas and Mississippi received $5 million each to measure methane emissions from wells and begin plugging them.

Researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University conducted a similar analysis of orphan wells last year, before the Infrastructure Act was passed. This year, they saw a dramatic increase in the number of documented wells in some states that updated their databases in response to federal funding.

Ohio, which received $25 million in federal funds, reported the most orphan wells of any state – 20,439 – in the latest analysis, compared to just 891 wells in last year’s analysis. .

Stephanie O’Grady, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said in an email that the department identified the additional wells through a comprehensive review of its records. She added that while the department employs 26 people in its orphan well program, it is looking for more qualified contractors to plug wells — a challenge for the Biden administration as it seeks to implement the Orphan Wells Act. way to create well-paying jobs. .

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Pennsylvania, which also received $25 million in federal funds, had the second-highest number of wells this year — 18,471 — up from 8,840 last year.

Jamar Thrasher, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said in an email that the number of undocumented wells in the state could be much higher – a consequence of the historic reliance on the state to fossil fuels to power its economy.

“Although the exact number of orphan wells remains unknown due to Pennsylvania’s long history of oil and gas exploration,” Thrasher said, the department “estimates there may be at least 200,000 oil wells and additional undocumented abandoned gases in the Commonwealth”.

In thousands of cases, junior oil and gas companies have abandoned wells after going bankrupt, leaving taxpayers responsible for cleaning them up. To proactively address this issue, federal and state laws require oil and gas companies to post bonds before drilling — a form of financial assurance that wells will be plugged if companies shirk liability.

But under current bond systems, state coffers are woefully underfunded. To ensure adequate funding for remediation, some advocates have called on the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to update bonding requirements for oil and gas development on federal lands. The Western Organization of Resource Councils, a regional network of eight local groups, recently submitted a petition urging the agency to write tougher bonding rules.

Oil and gas companies are underreporting methane leaks, new study finds

“Congress recently appropriated $4.7 billion to plug and recover orphan wells, but that funding has only addressed a small portion of the growing public responsibility for orphan wells across the country and hasn’t addressed the root cause,” the petition reads. “The problem of orphan federal wells will be best solved in the long term by sufficient bonding.”

In a statement, Cole Ramsey, vice president of upstream policy at the American Petroleum Institute, did not directly explain whether the powerful trade group supported the updated bond rules, but said the industry ” is taking action every day to deal with the permanent shutdown of natural gas and oil wells.” Ramsey added that the group unveiled a new industry standard last year that provides guidance on the proper closure and remediation of wells.

Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry declined to comment on the petition or the analysis of the abandoned wells.

Even without federal action, some states are rushing to tighten their own bail rules. Regulators in Colorado, the fifth-largest oil producer among states, approved sweeping new financial requirements for oil and gas companies in March. The rules require companies to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funds to cover potential cleanup costs, in an effort to better protect taxpayers.

“Colorado has pretty much solved its orphan well problem, and kudos to them,” Peltz said. “The rest of the country needs to do it now too.”

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