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Millions of orphaned oil and gas wells litter the world and must be cleaned up

There are millions of orphaned oil and gas wells around the world, and reckoning day has come.

A global team of researchers, spearheaded by McGill University, has embarked on a crucial mission to develop a comprehensive framework for dealing with these abandoned wells.

Their plan aims to aid governments in the United States and around the world in evaluating and prioritizing clean-up strategies for these environmental hazards.

No plan and no money to deal with orphaned wells

These wells, though inactive, pose substantial environmental threats. Their potential to pollute water sources, damage ecosystems, and release methane and other air pollutants is detrimental to human health.

On the flip side, decommissioning these wells can open up opportunities for environmental sustainability. Possibilities include underground storage for carbon dioxide and hydrogen and the initiation of geothermal energy systems.

The scope of the problem is vast.  Hundreds of thousands of such wells are scattered across the U.S. At least 400,000 more are found in Canada, and tens of millions more worldwide.

Burden falls on governments to cleanup the abandoned wells

Since the original proprietors of these wells are untraceable or incapable of performing the necessary clean-up, the burden typically falls on governments. Unfortunately, they often lack detailed information on how best to handle these orphaned wells.

In November 2021, the U.S. government, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), earmarked $4.7 billion USD to plug these orphaned wells throughout the country. But, as Mary Kang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at McGill University, points out, this sum might not suffice.

“While this sounds like a lot of money, we estimate that the costs of plugging the documented orphaned wells in the U.S. will exceed this sum by 30-80% or possibly more,” Kang asserts.

Her paper, published today in Environmental Research Letters, provides a comprehensive overview of the environmental risks and opportunities involved in various remediation strategies. It also highlights gaps in the data and stresses the urgency of obtaining further information.

Kang further explained, “And it will certainly not cover the large number of orphaned wells which are undocumented – whose very existence we know of but whose exact locations and depth remain unknown. We need to rapidly develop a framework and environmental monitoring datasets to prioritize wells for plugging, since tens of thousands of wells will be plugged in a matter of years.”

Over 4.5 million Americans live near orphaned wells

To grasp the broader impacts of these wells and guide governmental policies, the researchers scrutinized data for over 80,000 documented orphaned wells in the U.S.

Simultaneously, they reviewed available socioeconomic, environmental, and natural resource data, with hundreds of thousands more orphaned wells dispersed across the nation.

The research team discovered that over 4.6 million Americans (13% of the country’s population) reside within one kilometer of these orphaned wells. Unfortunately, Hispanic/Latino and Native American populations are disproportionately represented in these areas.

Over one-third of these wells are also approximately one kilometer away from a domestic groundwater well. However, there’s a glaring lack of data regarding the potential health risks associated with living near these orphaned wells.

“Recent studies have identified air, water and human health hazards of orphaned oil and gas wells. However, the literature is not yet extensive enough to quantify the risks of this legacy infrastructure across the country,” warns Seth Shonkoff at PSE Healthy Energy.

Opportunities exist at these sites for renewable energy projects

Interestingly, the researchers found that most of the documented orphaned wells (91%) are located in regions with subsurface storage potential for carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and natural gas. Yet, this would require these wells to meet strict safety standards.

Additionally, the researchers suggest that the land surrounding these wells could be repurposed for wind power production, given that approximately 75% of the orphaned wells are situated in regions with high wind capacity.

Also, about 33% of these wells are in areas like North Dakota. That state is moderately favorable for geothermal energy development. Another 1% are found in regions such as Utah, Colorado, and California. Those states are deemed most suitable for geothermal development.

“This analysis shines a light on the need to find, prioritize, plug and remediate orphaned wells. They are often located in close proximity to millions of Americans’ homes. The major task ahead is to understand and mitigate their environmental impacts,” emphasized Adam Peltz, Director and Senior Attorney at Environmental Defense Fund.

With the programs funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law gaining momentum, this study arrives at a critical time. It offers an in-depth exploration of the nature of the documented orphaned well population.

It also underscores the significance of the pending Abandoned Well Remediation Research and Development Act (AWRRDA) bill in Congress. This bill has the potential to expedite research to locate and remediate the hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells across the U.S. that remain undocumented.

As we move forward, the challenge is clear. We must locate and plug these orphaned wells to safeguard the environment and the health of communities living nearby. The hope is that the groundwork laid by this study will guide the necessary remediation actions and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

More about fossil fuel cleanup

The cleanup of fossil fuel excavation sites is a complex and multi-faceted process, involving a variety of stages, strategies, and techniques. It’s also an important topic due to the significant environmental and public health impacts associated with these sites.

These include potential contamination of water supplies, soil degradation, and the release of harmful pollutants.

Multiple steps in the process of cleaning up orphaned wells

One of the first steps in the cleanup process involves site assessment to determine the extent of contamination and the potential risks to human health and the environment. This can include testing soil, groundwater, and air samples, as well as conducting geologic and hydrogeologic studies.

Once the level of contamination has been established, the next step involves selecting the most appropriate remediation strategy. This can range from simple containment measures (such as capping the site with an impermeable layer) to more complex methods like bioremediation.

With this bioremediation method, microorganisms are used to break down pollutants. Another method uses pump-and-treat systems that remove contaminated groundwater and treat it off-site.

Another major aspect of fossil fuel excavation cleanup involves the reclamation of land. This often includes restoring the site to its original state or repurposing it for new uses. This can involve tasks such as removing any remaining infrastructure, replacing topsoil, regrading the land, and replanting native vegetation.

Repurposing abandoned well sites for renewable energy

In some cases, sites may also be repurposed for renewable energy production. As mentioned previously, abandoned oil and gas wells can potentially be used for geothermal energy production or as storage sites for carbon capture and sequestration projects.

An important factor in all of this is regulatory oversight. Various laws and regulations govern the cleanup of fossil fuel excavation sites. These laws can vary greatly by country and even by state or province within countries.

Regulatory oversight from governments

The regulations not only set standards for cleanup efforts but also often provide funding for such efforts. In particular, they address cases where the original operator of the site is no longer in business or is unable to pay for the cleanup.

For example, in the U.S., the Federal government has programs such as the Superfund and the Brownfields Program to clean up contaminated sites. However, these programs often face funding shortfalls, leading to a backlog of sites in need of cleanup.

Lastly, an emerging challenge related to fossil fuel excavation cleanup involves the handling of so-called orphan wells—abandoned oil and gas wells for which no responsible owner can be found.

These sites pose significant environmental risks. The scale of the problem is vast, with hundreds of thousands of such wells existing across the U.S. alone.

As such, much research is currently being conducted to assess the best strategies for dealing with these sites. This includes exploring the potential benefits and drawbacks of various plugging and remediation techniques.

In conclusion, fossil fuel excavation cleanup is a multifaceted process that is vital for protecting human health and the environment. It involves a range of strategies and techniques, and must be carefully managed and overseen to ensure effective results.

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