Abandoned wells: it's not just new drilling that contaminates water

There is a lot of new oil and gas drilling going on, and a lot of attention being paid to threats these operations pose to our air, water and landscapes. And rightfully so! However, there are also a lot of environmental risks associated with the wells that are no longer producing any oil or gas. They are called "idle" or "abandoned" wells, and sometimes they are "orphan" wells, which means that no responsible parties can be found or identified. These wells must be properly "plugged," and the wellpads reclaimed and restored to natural landscapes, or they can be sources of water and ground contamination for years.

If the responsible company does not properly plug and abandon a well, then the costs fall to the taxpayers. Government agencies usually require some type of bond to help pay for plugging and reclamation, but the bonds are not often enough to cover the true costs.

In 1989, a report issue by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO (then called the General Accounting Office) noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had estimated that there were about 1.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States--200,000 of which may be improperly plugged,

The GAO has just issued a new report which looks at how the Bureau of Land Management deals with idle and abandoned wells that were producing federal oil or gas resources. The GAO found that the BLM has not identified all idle or orphan wells on federal land, nor made progress in reducing the inventory of these wells. The GAO concluded that "these deficiencies have the potential to increase the federal government’s exposure to paying for reclamation costs for idle and orphan wells on federal land." The GAO also found that minimum bond amounts have not been updated or adjusted for inflation in more than 50 years!

In our report Drilling Down, we wrote about the Crockett ranch in Wyoming. The ranch is home to numerous abandoned oil wells, open holes and casings, with oil seepage that, when we wrote about it in 2007, had persisted for at least ten years. The BLM told the Crocketts that the agency does not have sufficient funds to clean up this mess, because adequate bonding had not been required. The Crocketts have spent thousands of their own dollars to try to get these orphan wells cleaned up, but no luck so far. And because oil and gas are exempt from the Superfund law, that program cannot help clean up these sites.

I wonder if any states have got a better track record than the BLM. How can we allow new oil or gas drilling when the old wells have not even been cleaned up yet?