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Aging Well Infrastructure

Briefly mentioned in the previous lesson on Engineering Considerations, wells that are no longer economical must be successfully plugged following the end of production; unfortunately, that is not always the case. Oftentimes aging wells are abandoned, especially when a company that had previously been in charge of well production goes bankrupt and is no longer in operation. Regulatory authority for abandoned oil and gas wells falls to state agencies. 

Many abandoned wells no longer have legal owners responsible for their care. These wells are known as orphaned wells and many have not been adequately mapped. Thus, the location of many orphan wells is left unknown to stage agencies. For example, the state of Pennsylvania has assessed that it is plausible that there could be up to 700,000 orphan wells within state borders. Other states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana are known for their high frequency of plugging orphaned wells located within state boundaries as well. These wells can pose severe risks such as risk of contaminant leakage within the subsurface into nearby underground sources of drinking water, leakage at the surface into surface waters such as rivers and streams, etc. Orphan wells are vulnerable to risks for both wellbore and subsurface integrity. Programs such as those administered by the Railroad Commission of Texas to plug abandoned oil and gas wells using state funds are  vital to ensure that abandoned wells are located and properly capped. The cost to plug a well in Texas is typically $15,000-25,000 depending on the depth of the well and additional factors. In May of 2021 there were 7,063 orphan wells in Texas known to the Railroad Commission.1Railroad Commission of Texas. (2021, May 18). Orphan Wells with Delinquent P-5 Greater Than 12 Months. https://www.rrc.state.tx.us/oil-and-gas/research-and-statistics/well-information/orphan-wells-12-months  

Orphan well in Texas

A rusty pipe is excavated by the Railroad Commission of Texas in southeast Texas as part of their orphan well plugging program. The pipe represents an abandoned well discovered by the landowner. As part of the plugging process, any pipe will be pulled from the ground and the hole will be plugged with cement.

Old surface oilfield casing just pulled out of hole from a plug and abandonment operation.

Current Policy Events

In recent news, the Biden Administration has recognized and made proposed plans to mitigate the number of abandoned wells in the country. His efforts towards a clean energy transition will look to tackling the abundance of orphaned wells and aging infrastructure in the oil and gas industry, vulnerable to environmental risks, such as groundwater pollution and increased methane emissions.2Sammon, A., (2021, April 14) Biden’s Promising, Problematic Plan to Plug Orphaned Oil and Gas Wells. Prospect.org. https://prospect.org/environment/bidens-promising-problematic-plan-plug-orphaned-oil-gas-wells

Aside from these clean energy policies, the President has also spoken in favor of a policy strictly on ‘orphaned well plugging’. This policy would contribute to a quarter of a million jobs associated with plugging abandoned wells as well as over fifteen billion dollars in federal funds for cleanup purposes. Biden has also pledged that this policy would go towards the cleanup of abandoned mines, such as coal and uranium, that can also pose significant environmental hazards.3Holstein, E. (2020, November 17). The connection between jobs and addressing orphan oil and gas wells. Environmental Defense Fund. http://blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2020/11/17/the-connection-between-jobs-and-addressing-orphan-oil-and-gas-wells 

Image Credits: Photo Courtesy of Hilary Olson ; Shutterstock.com

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