Biden Budget Highlights Country’s Unplugged Well Problem

Millions of orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells across the United States pose an ever-present threat to people, essential resources like drinking water, and our global climate.

Oil wells on Birch Hill, Brea

Credit: Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

In his first budget proposal to Congress, President Biden flagged an issue with broad ranging implications, from environmental justice to conservation to climate change. Orphaned and abandoned wells have become a growing problem across the United States, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimating that, as of 2016, there were 3.1 million orphaned and abandoned wells located across the country. Because of record-keeping lapses, that number may be even higher, with some researchers finding well over 1 million “undocumented” wells, meaning their locations and status are unknown.

Before we look at what these numbers translate into on the ground, a bit of terminology (since these terms are not consistently used by stakeholders):

  • Orphaned Wells: Idle wells with no known operator or owner who could be held responsible for cleaning up and plugging the open well.
  • Abandoned Wells: Idle wells with no recent production activity where the operator or owner is known and thus could be held responsible for cleaning up and plugging the open well.

Orphaned wells, due to the lack of a responsible owner or operator, represent a staggering financial liability for the past irresponsible actions of oil and gas producers across the country. Not only are these wells often hidden, but they are also known to leak crude oil, contaminate groundwater, leach into soils, and be a major source of methane leaks, one of the most potent greenhouse gases driving climate change.

Estimates vary widely on the cost to remediate this problem and the ongoing harms it is causing for individuals and communities whose homes and businesses are close to these wells. But the costs of fixing this problem are substantial. One of the most recent studies examining the issue in New Mexico, for example, found that the cost of remediating just that state’s orphaned and abandoned wells would cost north of $8 billion. Nationally, Carbon Tracker has put a $280 billion price estimate on the problem, and that doesn’t even include the million plus undocumented wells, which will not only be costly to plug, but also costly to locate.

Orphaned and abandoned wells can profoundly affect day to day life. For people living near old, unplugged wells, seeping toxic gases can lead to chronic health issues, or make the areas around wells no-go zones due to the dangers present. And because the location and even existence of many wells is completely unknown, they can also present risks to those who unknowingly build on top of them—a situation not unheard of that can cause structural damage to buildings or cause homes to fill with odorless, explosive methane.

In short, orphaned and abandoned wells are a constant and present danger. And its high time we put every effort into addressing this problem. President Biden’s budget request puts an important spotlight on this issue, and at the same time congressional leaders have proposed significant boosts in funding and important reforms that would better ensure that oil and gas producers remain financially responsible for cleaning up the messes they too often leave behind.

The good news: fixing this problem can create a lot of jobs. And that’s why it’s also a key aspect of Biden’s American Jobs Program.

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