Last year, the Biden administration announced that it is spending more than $560 million to clean up and plug oil wells across 24 states. This comes as the country looks to its commitment to reducing gas emissions, protecting communities from the dangers these wells pose, and preserving ancestral lands that once belonged to tribal communities.
In New York alone, the state has capped more than 400 oil wells in the past nine years. More recently, it continues to invest in new technology to locate these wells and come up with more accurate hazard maps. Many of these are located in places like Allegany and Erie counties, with some lying within or around residential areas.
Across the country, there are an estimated 120,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, but the Environmental Protection Agency expects more that remain undiscovered. Why does the United States have so many abandoned oil wells? What danger do they bring to communities lying close to them? Why is it so difficult and costly to locate and plug them?
The Origins of Orphaned Wells
According to figures from Worldometers, the United States produces more than 14,837,640 barrels of oil per day through less than one million active oil wells reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While the country is one of many major oil producers in the world, it still faces environmental concerns over oil wells that have run dry. After all, oil is a finite resource, and energy companies will have to look for other oil-rich sites to tap into.
An oil well is said to be “orphaned” if it stops producing. Energy companies managing such wells would choose to leave the land behind and look for new drilling sites. Bankruptcy is also a likely scenario that will lead to an orphaned well, especially if the company fails to sell or turn it over to a new owner.
In that case, the company would seal the well to prevent leaks that may contaminate the air and nearby groundwater deposits. This is not always the case as some companies fail to plug the wells completely, leaving behind a major environmental and health hazard.
The Race to Close Orphaned Wells
Aside from the need to reduce carbon emissions, plugging oil wells is also a critical public health issue. Abandoned oil wells are not only found in rural areas but there are some lying close to suburban and even urban areas. California, for one, has over 2,425 oil and gas wells, some of which lie near residential areas in Los Angeles.
When left alone, these idle wells can contaminate water sources with benzene and arsenic. Not only that, but abandoned wells can also cause explosions and fires.Plugging these wells is not an easy task as it requires the expertise of companies that specialize in oil well abandonment cleanup. Wells located in isolated areas are easier to deal with, but those lying near residential developments pose a major challenge. In addition to that, cleanup companies must also determine the depth of a well, detect cracks, and remove any remaining parts.
It is never an easy task, but when it comes to protecting communities from the health and environmental effects of these orphaned wells, the government may need more than $560 million to deal with this problem.