There are at minimum 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells littering the U.S. and an estimated 20-30 million globally. There is no known technology for securely sealing these wells. Many—likely hundreds of thousands—are already hemorrhaging oil, brine, and greenhouse gases into the environment. Habitats are being fundamentally altered and aquifers destroyed. Some of these abandoned wells are explosive, capable of building-leveling, toxin-spreading detonations. Largely ignored by both industry and governments, this problem has been growing for 150 years—since the first oil wells were drilled.
Last summer, an Associated Press (AP) investigation sparked by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill reported 27,000 abandoned oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. The AP did not consider California and Alaska, where there's also considerable offshore drilling, and ignored abandoned oil and gas wells on land. Looking beyond the Gulf, EcoHearth.com estimates the number of abandoned oil wells across the U.S. to be around 100 times greater than the AP's Gulf tally—and perhaps 1,000 times greater internationally.
Ian McDonnell, a Florida State University hydrologist who studies natural oil seeps, explains: "When Deepwater Horizon occurred, they found four different abandoned wells in the same field that were all leaking. That should tell you something." McDonnell has developed a satellite-based monitoring system to examine natural oil seeps in the Gulf. The oil produced by these seeps is visible from space as a surface sheen and a light dampening of wave action. "On the satellite data we see lots and lots of persistent seeps. Natural seeps are supposed to be found in very deep water, but we are seeing lots of persistent seeps in shallow water. Either we are completely wrong about our oil geology or these shallow water seeps aren't natural."
"If there are 2.5 million abandoned wells in the U.S. alone," says Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist, "then there are easily tens of millions of abandoned wells globally, including all of the traditional oil and gas provinces in the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Canada, Mexico, and so forth. Unfortunately, most nations do not even keep track of these, much less any sort of global monitoring and assessment."
"Well drilling began in 1859 in Pennsylvania," says Bill Pine, chief of the Subsurface Activity Section of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (which is charged with plugging abandoned oil wells) "and it's a safe bet the very first well abandoned in Pennsylvania was in 1859. We have thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells in the Commonwealth. I don't think anyone has an accurate record of how many really exist."
In Texas, things are even murkier. The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) which has regulated the oil industry since 1901 (when pipelines were considered another form of interstate transportation like railroads) reports that as of August 2009 there were 389,000 active and 110,000 abandoned oil wells in Texas alone. But the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas estimates that more than one million wells have been dug in Texas, while a 1990 Texas Water Development Board study found there are 1.5 million Texas wells—one million of those abandoned.
"Welcome to the rabbit hole," says Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and author of Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction. "It's the same in California. We have a century-old oil industry. How many wells were abandoned before regulations were put in place? Many wells were just wildcatted in—who knows where they are or how many there are. In the Baldwin Field alone, which sits in the center of urban Los Angeles, there are hundreds of abandoned wells."
How securely are these abandoned wells sealed? Not very. The AP report touched on the oil industry's well-sealing technology, which relies on cement. It noted that "whether a well is permanently or temporarily abandoned, improperly applied or aging cement can crack or shrink," making these abandoned wells "an environmental minefield."
Faulty cement application puts a select set of wellheads at risk, but aging cement means that every single one of the tens of millions of abandoned wells worldwide has the potential for ecological disaster. Bob Cavnar, Luca Technologies CEO and 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, says, "The way the oil and gas industry approaches old wells is to plug them, cover them up, and forget about them. Although the goal is that these plugs last forever, because of aging and corrosion, there is always a risk they will leak."
Many of these abandoned wells are underwater where ships can collide with the rigging. If they're on land, leaks can lead to methane buildup that may cause explosions, which, of course, create more leaks. Abandoned wells can also re-pressurize, in much the same way a dormant volcano can wake up. The results can be anything from groundwater contamination to a disaster of the Deepwater Horizon variety.
Then there's the question of general leaks. The oil companies seem to universally believe that once an oil well is plugged, it's plugged forever. Ramona Nye, a spokesperson for the Texas RRC, said as much: "Once wells are plugged they are not monitored but remain on Commission maps and records as plugged wells."
"We've gotten really sophisticated at drilling deep wells," says Tamminen, "but the same attention has not been placed on plugging wells. Look at what happened when we tried to plug Deepwater Horizon. Nothing was working. The very best minds in the oil world were on this problem and they were making it up as they went along."
According to Greg Rosenstein, a VP with the New Orleans-based Superior Energy Service, who plugs between 500 to 600 offshore wells a year, a standard plugging job consists of layers of cement and cast-iron plugs. "These plugs are meant to last," he says. "Rarely do we re-plug a well. There's no monitoring technology in place. Sure, it's possible that they could be leaking, but we think it occurs very rarely."
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. The EPA has estimated that 17 percent of all abandoned onshore wells are improperly plugged. Even in properly sealed wells, the cement plugs can fail over decades and metal casings that line the wells can rust.
Steiner explains further: "The oil industry has this term 'permanently plugged wells,' but nobody knows what that means over time. They have completely unreliable expectations for some really basic technology. They plug wells with concrete. Just look at your sidewalks. Pour a fresh sidewalk, wait a few years, and it's cracking and heaving. That's what happens to concrete. But nobody wants to admit this could possibly be going on with oil well plugs."
The environmental dangers of leaking wells include, for starters, abandoned wells leaking brine, oil, greenhouse gases, and sometimes all three. Brine poisons aquifers and ecosystems. Oil does more of the same. A 1994 Government Accountability Office report summed up this issue: "If oil leaks from an improperly plugged well, there is risk that the environment and marine life will be adversely affected. Mammals, birds, shellfish and plants can be killed by oil."
Steiner expands on oil toxicity: "Even in small volume releases of oil, there can be significant environmental injury if it occurs in a sensitive environment. We know some components of oil—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—are toxic down to levels as low as one part per billion. And these effects can manifest years in the future, and in ways not expected. Oil is nasty stuff, plain and simple."
Well-released greenhouse gases, meanwhile, are toxic and at least one, methane, is highly explosive. "We've had cases in Pennsylvania," says Pine, "when an abandoned gas well started leaking. We've seen garages, outhouses, even houses blow up. It doesn't happen often, but it happens."
Tamminen points out that an expansive (and long-contested) housing development in Playa Vista, California was built atop so many greenhouse-gas-leaking abandoned oil wells that the developers had to "pay off 60 different oil inspectors to get them to shut up about it. Instead they put in a pressure-release system. But there are warning signs in parking garages about methane. And the first time a well-casing cracks? These things are literally ticking time bombs."
Then there's the rigging itself. When wells are abandoned, the oil company is supposed to remove the rigging. But when that rigging is offshore and under a lot of water, sometimes they don't bother. In July 2010, a dredge barge pulled by a tug vessel hit an orphaned well owned by Houston-based Cedyco Corp, about 35 miles south of New Orleans. Governor Bobby Jindal told reporters: "The pipeline well head is discharging a mist of orange and brown oil about 100 feet in the air." That mist left a mile-long oil sheen on the surface. Worse, no one has yet figured out how to cap this well, so it's still—some seven months later—dumping oil into the Louisiana Bay.
"For years and years, abandoned wells were completely unregulated," says Cavnar. "They were plugged, covered up with dirt, and not even marked on a map. Then in the mid-1970s, state governments became more active. They passed some rules, but allowed the industry to self-regulate. Some states have begun to inspect wells at the time they are abandoned, but they don't re-inspect them for leaks or problems."
The deputy director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M, Dr. Norman Guinasso, agrees: "The rules for temporarily abandoned wells have no teeth. Companies abandon wells and submit paperwork, but they don't respect a well after that. It's out of sight and out of mind."
As David Callahan, senior fellow at Demos, a nonprofit public policy group, pointed out in a Washington Post editorial in August 2010: "Of course, the dirty rich still have enough juice on capitol Hill to kill bills they don't like, or to neuter the federal watchdogs who oversee deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and coal mining in West Virginia. ExxonMobil, for example, is not just the second-largest American corporation; it also has some of the deepest pockets for lobbying, spending $27.4 million on such activities in 2009, more than any other company."
After the BP Deepwater Horizon accident, things may be slowly changing. In September 2010, the Obama administration required oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf to plug the 3,500 temporarily abandoned wells and to dismantle about 650 production platforms that are no longer used. But that involves using the same inadequate sealing technology and it's just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the 2.5 million abandoned U.S. oil wells—and the tens of millions of abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide.
Anyway, sealing them is one thing, but without vigilant monitoring, only the worst leaks will be caught. Even if they are discovered, the cost of dismantling and plugging abandoned undersea wells and platforms can run anywhere from $50,000 to $100 million, which means oil companies are motivated not to act quickly. But every minute counts, as Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (the agency charged with taking care of abandoned undersea wells) told the Huffington Post: "As infrastructure continues to age, the risk of damage increases. That risk increases substantially during storm season."
Even if these wells do get plugged and dismantled, what happens next? The AP discovered that the federal agencies responsible for monitoring abandoned Gulf wells rarely return after the initial plugging to check for leaks. And what about the tens of millions of other abandoned wells?
California has one of the nation's more rigorous monitoring programs, but Tamminen points out that it is too short-handed to do its job (and that current budget cuts are making it worse). He believes, in any case, that this shouldn't be done on the government's dime. "Oil is the richest enterprise in the history of human commerce," he says. "There is no reason this entire issue—plugging, monitoring, anything else that's required—isn't fully funded by the industry."
The Bottom Line
With likely hundreds of thousands already leaking to a greater or lesser extent, we are already causing untold environmental damage. Oil and gas leaks exacerbate and accelerate other major environmental problems such as global warming, ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and species extinction. Every day—thanks to shrinking and cracking of aging cement plugs, accidents, earthquakes, natural erosion, and re-pressurization—more wells will begin to leak, adding to this escalating ecological calamity.
The energy industry has turned a large portion of our globe into a Superfund site waiting to happen. Welcome to the rabbit hole indeed.
Steven Kotler is the author of The Angle Quickest for Flight, West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, and the forthcoming A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life (Bloomsbury). Additional reporting by Ryan Miga. This article first appeared at ecohearth.com.