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The U.S. Has a Very Big Abandoned Oil Well Problem

Democrats are debating proposals to cap wells and their methane leaks. But we don’t even know the scale of the issue yet.

Drilling machinery stands in the California hills.
David McNew/Getty Images
An oil field over the Monterey shale formation near Lost Hills, California

On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing to address an issue that’s been plaguing communities from West Virginia to New Mexico for decades: abandoned and orphaned gas and oil wells. While the terminology varies state to state, to keep things simple, an abandoned well is one that is no longer operational but is still owned by a functioning company; an orphaned well is one whose owner has since disappeared, often due to bankruptcy, transferring the responsibility for the well to the state government.

American energy corporations have spent the past century drilling wells wherever they believe gas or oil to be located. It was, and still is, a numbers game for them—the more wells one drills, the higher the chances of striking it big. All of this, of course, is abetted by governmental under-regulation and subsidy. There’s been little industry-wide concern with what happens to these wells after they cease to produce. So all too often, these nonproducing wells have been left unattended and unplugged as gas and oil companies focus on operational wells. As a result, thousands of communities and homes now live with the aftereffects of open but abandoned drilling sites, which leak methane fumes and contaminate groundwater and aquifers.

There are a number of different problems to attend to here. But at Thursday’s virtual hearing, scientists, ranchers, and legislators all echoed the largest and most fundamental concern with the abandoned and orphaned wells: As things currently stand, neither the U.S. federal government, nor the state governments, nor the drilling companies have a solid idea of the true scope of the crisis.

As Reuters reported in 2018, citing U.S. Environment Protection Agency data, there are at least 3.2 million known abandoned wells in the country, though the EPA believes the potential total could be three times higher. The current plans touted by the Biden administration and Representative Teresa Leger Fernández—whose proposed Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act was the reason for Thursday’s hearing—might not be perfect, but they do represent what the communities living near these wells have needed for years: an acknowledgment of the problem, and an attempt to fully grasp its scale.

What we currently know is already scary enough. According to a December 2020 study published by McGill University scientists in Environmental Science and Technology, abandoned and orphaned wells rank as the tenth-highest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States. While many of these wells dot the landscape among rural communities, this is an issue for urban communities, too, with drill-happy cities like Los Angeles now contending with the fallout of having hundreds of wells next door to apartment buildings and offices. The currently incalculable, cumulative effect of the leaking methane and the briny water that can spew from the wells threatens both the health of nearby humans and the entire planet.

Among the authors of the McGill study was Dr. Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill and one of the expert witnesses during Thursday’s hearing. During her time speaking before the subcommittee, Kang laid out how the current data fails to “account for the hundreds of thousand of orphaned wells across the country.”

“There should be more research involving field measurements of methane emissions from representative samples of abandoned wells identified as predictors of high emission rates,” Kang said, adding that researchers also need, “improved methods for well finding, methane emission measurement, and record-keeping.”

Both Biden’s plan and Fernández’s bill seek to allocate billions of dollars toward the ongoing cleanup efforts. Specifically, the legislation introduced by Fernández would authorize funds for identifying, plugging, and reclaiming the wells on federal lands; direct the secretary of the Interior Department to create a grant program for tribal nations and state governments to access wells on state and tribal lands; and create stricter bonding regulations so that the companies drilling the wells will be held accountable up front for the cost of plugging and reclamation.

Going from identifying the wells to closing them up for good is a costly process—one that state-operated commissions often lack the funding to take on alone. In 2019, NPR spoke with Jill Morrison, the executive director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming, who told the outlet that states are stretched thin because “the industry has not been held accountable by the regulators.” That is, obtaining the necessary permits and bonds to operate a well has been a relatively easy, streamlined process for extractors. As it stands now, the federal government only requires well owners to show that they are actually operating their wells every seven years.

When a company or individual well owner overextends financially or hits a personal crisis, it’s the states that are left with the responsibility of both overseeing and then plugging the wells. And with many of these gas and oil-dependent states scared to chase away industry by bolstering drilling regulations, the pile of abandoned and orphaned wells has grown. Reporting for Grist last December, reporter Emily Pontecorvo found that Oklahoma has a running list of 800 wells scheduled to be plugged and over 12,000 more that have been orphaned. But in 2019, Pontecorvo reported, Oklahoma managed to plug just 138 wells. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported last March that until the past few years, the entire city of Los Angeles had only one full-time well inspector working for the Fire Department, resulting in an incredibly low violation rate for idle wells.

As NPR reported, plugging abandoned wells involves a process wherein a team of workers, usually about a half-dozen, rip the existing pipe infrastructures out of the earth, use explosives to crack the rock surrounding the well, and then pour concrete into the resulting gaps to seal the space. Setting aside the fact that the increased production of cement for the concrete is not a particularly environmentally friendly solution, due to cement’s own emission rates, plugging wells is hard, labor-intensive work. The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan calls for $16 billion in federal funding for plugging the wells, which the White House touts as a potential mass employment vehicle, given the scope of the issue.

As The American Prospect’s Alexander Sammon pointed out earlier this week, though, the American Jobs Plan’s proposed plugging spree, on its own, would not be enough. After all, gas and oil operators are continuing to drill new wells on nonfederal lands, and potentially millions of unaccounted wells remain idle. What’s needed, in order to make the $16 billion a worthwhile investment, is buy-in from gas and oil states to drastically ramp up the currently weak bonding process that allows so many companies to leave town the moment their well or their coffer runs dry. This is, in large part, the gap that Fernández’s Orphaned Well Cleanup and Jobs Act seeks to fills.

The question that now faces the White House, Congress, and tribal and state governments, is whether that bill can survive attempts by industry interests to water down its necessarily drastic regulation overhauls. The oil and gas industry has thrived for decades on lax regulation and subsidies. That needs to change in order for people from the Ohio River Valley to Navajo Nation to Los Angeles to have a chance at reclaiming their landscapes. And as the true cost of the wells emerges, perhaps a consensus will materialize that we simply need to stop drilling.