Understanding the Connection Between Orphaned Wells and Climate Change 

Orphaned wells are abandoned oil or gas wells that are not currently managed by a responsible owner. They are often several thousand feet deep, so they can access oil or gas deposits, but this depth also means the wells reach deep groundwater supplies and areas of methane and other harmful greenhouse gases.   

The EPA estimates there are approximately 3.5 million unplugged abandoned wells throughout the United States. They are a massive problem, as their numbers are high and they are spread around many states, with a concentration in Texas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Montana and Ohio.   

Wells might become orphaned when the company operating them goes bankrupt, decides to stop operations, or shifts its focus to a different area. Wells might produce lower oil or gas levels over time, making them less profitable. This often encourages operators to sell or transfer the wells until the last operator finds operation is no longer sustainable. In these instances, the operator might just abandon the well, leaving it to reach a state of ongoing disrepair and resulting health and climate risks. These wells often revert back to the responsibility of state agencies where it is located.  

The Climate Connection 

Orphaned wells often leak various chemicals that can penetrate into the local groundwater. This can negatively impact human health, and also restrict a landowner’s ability to use the water for crops or sustaining livestock. 

These wells also contribute to climate change through methane gas emissions that can escape the wells into the atmosphere. Methane is around 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, making it a priority concern for mitigation efforts. Plugging wells that release methane is more effective on a cost basis than many other climate change efforts. For example, Well Done Foundation notes some of the wells it has plugged were emitting 4,000 metric tons of CO2e (e is “equivalent” every year) and removing that same amount would require the planting of approximately 400,000 trees which require water and decades-long management. 

Methane from wells is also a public health hazard, as it can flow into nearby buildings and cause convulsions, vomiting, and other symptoms. Long-term exposure can prove fatal, and there is also an explosion risk when methane gathers in an enclosed space and is exposed to flame.  

The Well Done Foundation (www.welldone foundation.org) is a nonprofit organization working to identify, assess, plug, and monitor orphaned wells. It works with donors and corporate sponsors to plug wells and reduce harmful emissions.