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The Environmental Consequences of Orphan Oil Wells

I have a background in real estate and have worked for a time in the oil and gas industry.

Stripper wells such as this one make less than 15 barrels of oil per day. Many have small leaks and problems which pose hazards for humans and the environment.

Stripper wells such as this one make less than 15 barrels of oil per day. Many have small leaks and problems which pose hazards for humans and the environment.

What Are Abandoned Oil Wells or Orphan Wells?

There are approximately 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the U.S. These are wells that, for one reason or another, were deemed obsolete and now sit idle and abandoned. Orphan wells, as they are sometimes called, are oil and gas wells that were owned by now-bankrupt companies that failed to properly clean up and decommission them.

Another type of well, the stripper well, or wells "stripping" the last remaining reserves from a declining oilfield, can also cause environmental problems. Stripper wells are oil wells that make less than 15 barrels a day. There are approximately 380,000 of them in the U.S., according to the EIA or Energy Information Administration. Of that number, some are in very poor condition and are causing environmental problems.

Regulation of Wells

Both kinds of wells are regulated, for the most part, by state oil and gas regulatory agencies, such as the confusingly named Railroad Commission in Texas. In the case of large states such as Texas, regulatory agencies may have a number of field inspectors who are in charge of monitoring and inspecting old oil and gas wells owned by literally hundreds of small companies. In smaller states, where there may not be as much oil and gas activity, the regulatory agency's inspection and compliance division may consist of only one or two people.

What Dangers Do Orphan Oil and Gas Wells Pose?

Many orphan gas wells across the United States are still actively polluting freshwater aquifers, rivers, lakes, and even the air we breathe. They are one of America's most pressing environmental problems, yet few people outside of the oil and gas industry have even heard of them. How did we get to this point?

America has been hungry for oil and gas for decades, and in the search for energy independence, the environment has often taken a back seat. In addition, regulatory agencies have expected oil and gas companies to clean up and plug abandoned wells for years—yet few provisions were ever made for dealing with bankrupt companies, such as fully funding an industry-wide cleanup fund.

What Do Oil or Gas Wells Consist of?

Perhaps the easiest way to explain what might go wrong with an abandoned or neglected oil well is to illustrate what an oil or gas well actually consists of. An oil or gas well is simply a hole that has been drilled into the earth, in some cases well over a mile deep down into a layer of rock that contains petroleum in the form of oil or pressurized natural gas. That hole is then filled with a steel pipe, called casing, that is typically cemented into place to isolate the freshwater zone above or below the oil-producing zone.

Once the casing is in place, an oil company perforates or creates small holes into the casing so that the petroleum can flow out of that layer of rock, up the pipe, and into production tanks or pipelines. If, for some reason, the cement that keeps the pipe in place and isolates the well from valuable freshwater aquifers were to be compromised, either by fault of design or environmental reasons, a catastrophic failure can occur. Some wells in the US date back as far as the 1930's when standards were laxer, and age and salt water have taken their toll on them, leading to failure.

This type of casing and cement failure has already occurred in a number of areas of the country, where freshwater aquifers that cities and towns rely on are now permanently contaminated with oil, natural gas, and salt water. In numerous cases, this oil, gas, and saltwater have migrated up alongside poorly cased oil and gas wells and permanently into our most valuable aquifers. Aquifers such as the Ogalalla, which stretches from Texas to South Dakota and supplies millions of humans with water, have experienced increases in contaminants and salinity near aging oil fields.

Abandoned Oil Wells Are Releasing Tons Of Methane

As far as greenhouse gases go, methane is approximately 100 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared to CO2. In the US, the EPA estimates that in 2018, abandoned wells in the US alone emitted 281 kilotons of methane into the air. That's enough methane released into the atmosphere to fill over 400 large ocean-going LNG transport ships each year.

Abandoned and marginal oil wells can release toxins into the air, such as hydrogen sulfide gas or H2S, which can be deadly to humans. Many small towns near oil and gas wells suffer the stench of H2S. And although they're usually not in large enough amounts to kill, they are a persistent respiratory irritant. Luling, Texas, is one such town where residents know all too well the "rotten egg" smell of H2S from old oil wells.

Leaking Salt Water

Some wells also leak produced salt water, which fields such as the one around the town of Luling have lots of. As some oil wells age, they produce large quantities of salt water, which is usually separated out from the oil at the surface in specialized tanks. If this separation equipment is not maintained carefully, salt water may escape into the environment, along with small amounts of oil, and end up killing marine life in small creeks and ponds, as well as damaging soil with excessive salt buildup.

Below is a photo of a well owned by a small "mom and pop" oil company that is leaking oil and gas from around the casing and onto private land. It was reported to the regulatory agency over a year ago; however, no action has yet been taken.

This old stripper well has gas bubbling up in a pool of oil at the base of the casing. This indicates that the casing is compromised at some point.

This old stripper well has gas bubbling up in a pool of oil at the base of the casing. This indicates that the casing is compromised at some point.

How Can The Problem Of Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Be Solved?

Orphan oil wells are a clear threat to our air, and water public safety. In addition to the threat to the environment, abandoned surface equipment such as storage tanks (see photo below) and pumpjacks have claimed the lives of many children over the years. We owe it to future generations to solve this growing problem before it gets any worse.

The solution to stopping further environmental damage from abandoned oil and gas wells is, in most cases, to perform an operation called "plugging and abandoning." In this process, tubing, pump rods, and other equipment are removed from the well, and the entire length of the underground borehole and casing is filled with cement. The cost estimated by the state of California alone has been estimated at $500 million. The scope of the problem on a national scale is in the billions and is further being exacerbated by current low oil prices, which are forcing even more small oil companies into bankruptcy.

As of 2020, both political parties are proposing massive infrastructure spending as a way of creating jobs and rebuilding America. It is crucial for our health and safety that some of these funds be allocated to plugging and abandonment programs for orphan wells. In addition, a trust fund should be established on a national scale, into which oil and gas companies contribute a portion of their profits to ensure that funds will be available for plugging orphan wells if the operator ever goes bankrupt.

In the case of stripper wells, state and national governments should work with small oil companies before they go bankrupt and help nudge them in the right direction. Stripper wells still produce approximately 10% of the oil that America consumes, although many of these wells now operate at a loss. Many small landowners and communities across the US still depend on royalty income and tax revenue from these small wells.

Perhaps the US government could help send some of these companies a temporary lifeline, and enable them to clean up existing operations, by purchasing a portion of their output for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. However it is done, with industry, state, or federal money, cleaning up orphan and stripper wells must be done soon and done right before they cause any more environmental damage.

What Can You Do?

If you notice abandoned oil wells in your area, especially ones that appear to be leaking oil, gas, or water, please report them to your state's environmental agency, oil and gas division, or the US Environmental Protection Agency. Ask for a case number and request a follow-up call after they have inspected the well. In addition, let your state and local politicians know your feelings about this issue and demand that action is taken.

Abandoned oil well tanks such as this one pose a danger to children and wildlife, which may fall in and become trapped.

Abandoned oil well tanks such as this one pose a danger to children and wildlife, which may fall in and become trapped.


Mother Jones: The Number of Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Is on The Verge of Exploding. What Happens Now?

Forbes Magazine: Plugging Abandoned Oil Wells Is One ‘Green New Deal’ Aspect Loved By Both Republicans And Democrats

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Nolen Hart