By John McFerrin
The June, 2019, issue of The Highlands Voicecontained a very useful article on efforts to plug old gas wells. The crux of the story was that we have a bazillion (actually 4,500 currently orphaned gas wells with another 27,000 set to join them in the future) old gas wells that need to be plugged.
The story went on to talk about how little money there is currently available to address this problem. It went further to describe efforts to persuade the West Virginia Legislature to do something about this. While nothing passed in the most recent legislative session, the article ended on a hopeful note, pointing out that ideas often take a couple of years to bounce around the Legislature, gain supporters, etc. before passing the third year. Since this idea has been bouncing for two years, there is reason to hope that the Legislature will tackle this problem in 2020.
What the story did not address is exactly why we should do this. It is intuitively true that old wells should be plugged. It just seems like the sensible and tidy thing to do.
On the other hand, some of these wells have been abandoned for the better part of a century. Given enough time, nature is in many circumstances capable of healing itself. Are these abandoned wells really doing any harm? Might we just as well leave them alone?
For the answer to this, we turn to the American Geoscientists Institute. It has collected research on dangers from abandoned wells. The answers are: (1) Yes, they are doing harm; and (2) No, we should not just leave them alone.
This is what the American Geoscientists Institute says about the dangers from abandoned wells:
Risks to Groundwater, Air, and the Surface Environment
- Orphaned wells are often abandoned without any plugging or cleanup, but even plugged wells may leak, especially those plugged in the past, when plugging procedures were less rigorous and used less durable materials. Unplugged or poorly plugged wells may affect:
- Groundwater – old wells may have degraded well casing or cement that can allow oil, gas, or salty water to leak into freshwater aquifers. An assessment of 185 groundwater contamination incidents in Ohio from 1983 to 2007 found 41 incidents caused by leakage from orphaned wells, compared to 113 incidents caused during drilling and production.
- Methane emissions – a study of 138 abandoned wells in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Ohio found that over 40% of unplugged wells leaked methane, compared to less than 1% of plugged wells. This study estimated that abandoned wells account for 2-4% of the methane emissions from oil and gas activity.
- The surface environment – orphaned sites may still have old equipment, contaminated soil from small spills, and other waste at the surface. In some unplugged or poorly plugged wells, oil, gas, drilling mud, or salty water can rise up the well and spill at the ground surface or, in the case of offshore wells, into open water.
The American Geoscientists Institute also has something to say about the added danger imposed when you introduce widespread hydraulic fracturing into a location where there are abandoned wells:
Abandoned Wells and Hydraulic Fracturing
Hydraulic fracturing uses the high-pressure injection of fluids into oil- or gas-bearing rocks to fracture them and allow oil and/ or gas to flow out. The increased pressure in the rocks during this process can push oil or salty water up nearby unidentified or improperly plugged abandoned wells. In one of the more extreme cases of this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited an abandoned well in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, that produced a 30-foot geyser of brine for more than a week as a result of hydraulic fracturing of a nearby well. In addition to these fluids contaminating soil and potentially reaching groundwater, the unexpected pressure release caused by this fluid escape reduces the effectiveness of the hydraulic fracturing operation, so there are both environmental and economic incentives to identify and plug wells near a planned hydraulic fracturing operation.
The information from the American Geoscientists Institute is done from a national perspective. It draws on information from several state and national sources, including the factoid that there have been 3.7 million wells drilled in the United States since 1859. It makes reference to several programs to plug abandoned wells, including one in Pennsylvania that plugged over 3,000 orphan wells between 1989 and 2017.
Unlike some Institutes that are little more than lobbying organizations masquerading as researchers, the American Geoscientists Institute is just a bunch of people interested in rocks who like to share their research with each other and the public. They are devoted to calling them like they see them. To see its entire summary of the problem of abandoned gas wells, go to www.americangeosciences.org/geoscience-currents/abandoned-wells. If you want more depth, there are lots of footnotes to more detailed articles.
As a national organization, the American Geoscientists Institute offers a national perspective. For something more local, consider the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization. It has a slide show on the drilling of a well. While it does not address abandoned wells, the things that could happen during the drilling are the same things that could happen to an abandoned well. To see it, go to wvsoro.org/gas-well-drilled-ground-can-go-wrong/.