The United States is emerging as a focal point of one of the larger problems arising from oil and gas production: the leaky wells left behind when fossils abandon them rather than cleaning up the health and environmental mess they’ve created.
“More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water,” Reuters writes, in an in-depth report based on review of government data and wide-ranging interviews. “And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand.”
Abandoned and leaking wells “have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard, and a public nuisance,” linked to dozens of cases of groundwater contamination in the U.S. alone, the story notes. “Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.”
And scientists and governments are only now beginning to get a handle on the serious climate risk involved, as governments begin tracking the methane leaching from the wells. So far, Reuters says, Canada and the U.S. are the only countries keeping records.
In the U.S. alone, “more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018,” writes reporter Nichola Groom, citing data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “That’s the climate damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation, or about as much as the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in a typical day.”
And after allowing for incomplete data, the EPA says the actual impact could be three times worse. “The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than two million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged.”
Methane is a shorter-acting greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but 84 times more potent over the crucial 20-year span when humanity will be pushing to get the worst effects of climate change under control. In April, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported atmospheric methane levels rising at the fastest rate in five years between 2018 and 2019.
Reuters says the problem is less pronounced in Canada, where most fossil production comes from the tar sands/oil sands, although a study earlier this year found that unregulated emissions from those operations could undercut the country’s push for a 40 to 45% methane reduction by 2025. Recent studies have also raised serious concerns about under-reporting of methane emissions in northeastern British Columbia and health and safety risks in Alberta, as well as the climate impacts of an emerging fracking boom in B.C. and Quebec.
Beyond North America, “the global impact is harder to measure. The governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China—which round out the top five world oil and gas producers—did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on their abandoned wells and have not published reports on the wells’ methane leakage,” Reuters writes.
Without better data, scientists say they can’t put accurate numbers to the global emissions from orphan wells. “But a rough Reuters calculation, based on the U.S. share of global crude oil and natural gas production, would place the number of abandoned wells around the world at more than 29 million, with emissions of 2.5 million tonnes of methane per year—the climate damage equivalent of three weeks of U.S. oil consumption.”
Click here for the rest of an excellent 15-minute read from Reuters.