We’re working to solve a very serious problem here, folks.
Climate change is real and capping orphan oil wells will absolutely reduce the amount of methane gas emitted into the atmosphere. We spend a lot of time responding to comments and questions driven by unfortunate misconceptions. Here are a few of them:
An orphan well no longer has a financially responsible party to either plug or produce from the well. Often, orphan wells are in “stripper fields,” where wells produce low volumes of oil or gas and no longer produce enough oil or gas to be economically viable. Through a series of sales, transfers, and assignments, these wells get handed off until the last operator is unable to continue in business. Typically, these wells revert to the state by default, who become the responsible party.
By the time the well is considered orphan, there is no longer a company around to do the plugging. This can be because the company or operator went bankrupt, or otherwise disappeared. Before a well is placed on an orphan well list, the regulators in the state in which the well is located will try to determine whether there is a viable owner or operator.
In the USA, it’s estimated that there are more than 2.5 million orphan wells—and that number is climbing. Because these wells, many drilled decades ago, have no owner or operator, the wells are neglected. Most wells are leaking methane and sometimes oil, or in danger of leaking if they aren’t plugged. The WDF plugs wells that are leaking methane, pose a threat to water supplies, or are a danger to communities. We prioritize wells based on the level of danger to the air or water and their location. Many wells are in neighborhoods and/or underserved communities. Recent projects include the plugging of wells in low-income senior housing and a trailer park.
It’s not an either/or choice. Collectively, we should all be doing everything we can to tackle and solve the problems of climate change, including planting trees (we love trees) and plugging leaking wells. Money spent plugging methane-leaking oil and gas wells is money efficiently spent, and it is a direct, immediate and effective way to fight climate change.
To give an example, our average cost to plug an orphan well is +/-$65,000. Several of the wells we have plugged were emitting 4,000 metric tons of CO2e every year. To place that in context, to remove that same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere you would have to plant approximately 400,000 trees, which you would then have to manage and grow for 20 years.
Because it is not economical to get the gas or oil from these wells to market, or someone would already be doing it. Typically, these wells are in advanced state of disrepair; costing more to rebuild the well than the well is able to produce.
If we were, we’d have money to plug more wells. The Well Done Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The reality is that our team donates hundreds of hours of their time to this work for free because we feel that passionate about the mission. There is not enough money at either the state or federal level to plug all the leaking orphan wells, and we rely on many partners to help us fund our plugging efforts.
They are most prevalent in the 37 states where oil and gas drilling has historically occurred. Within those states, they are everywhere: national and state parks, in parking lots, in agricultural fields, below and around houses. We recently plugged a leaking well in Ohio that was buried under the courtyard of a low-income senior housing complex. No one knew the well was there until a contractor hit the casing pipe with his backhoe. The well had been leaking noxious fumes into the complex for years and the tenants had been complaining about the smell for just as long.
Before we decide to plug a well, we monitor it over a period of time, and we measure the actual volume of emissions from the well. Based on that, and other factors, we can then prioritize which wells are the most critical to plug. The Well Done Foundation is also helping state regulators do this same prioritization by bringing our technology and expertise into the field to help states decide how to best allocate often limited financial and human resources.