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The Accessibility to Research and Information about Orphan Wells

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Written By Kennedy Metcalf August 10, 2023


The American petroleum industry began in 1859 with the first well drilled in Pennsylvania (AOGHS 2022). Today there are more than 1 million active wells and approximately 3 million inactive wells in the United States (USEIA 2022). With about 130,000 documented orphaned wells (EDF 2022), most states face a significant challenge associated with managing these wells. The scope of the problem has not been long understood as data and research limitations have challenged our abilities to accurately assess the number and impact of orphaned wells across the United States. This is why the work of researchers like Dr. Townsend-Small and Dr. Pekney has been so important in the process of addressing orphaned wells across the country. These wells may leak dangerous liquids or emit methane and several other harmful gases. Both scientists have played a crucial role in identifying how abandoned and orphaned wells are contributing to air pollution and the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


How experts research orphaned wells:

Finding undocumented orphaned wells can be a burdensome task. Data, cost, location, access, and time may be restrictive when searching an area for undocumented wells. Dr. Pekney and her team at NETL work to locate and document these unknown wells by various means including through aeromagnetic surveys. This can be an extremely effective method for finding steel-cased wells by drone or plane (Saint-Vincent et al. 2020). However, this method can be costly and impossible on some sites. Therefore, Dr. Pekney also utilizes historical documents including drawings, pictures, and maps (Nemo 2022). The final step when searching an area is to look in the field for evidence of pipes in the ground, or other old infrastructure.

Once a well has been located, it is essential to assess the condition of the well and make note of its characteristics. If the well leaks methane or contaminates groundwater, then it needs to be prioritized for plugging. Testing wells for environmental impact is a crucial step in ensuring that orphaned wells are addressed appropriately.


Research Sources:

Researching and finding information about orphaned wells can be complicated. As the recent $4.7 billion funding from the DOI was announced in 2021 to address orphan wells across the country, public interest in orphaned wells has increased. Although, if you are not an expert, most of the information can seem complicated and elaborate. Therefore, I have collected several sources for anyone that would like to learn a little more about orphaned wells here.


This graphic, created by Fellow Environmental Partners, displays approximately every state with a documented orphaned well in the United States, as found in their orphaned and abandoned well methodology.


Fellow Environmental Partner’s Web Map:

This is the link for FEP’s Orphan Well Web Map, an interactive tool where users can look at the location of orphan wells across the United States. This unique map, 100% volunteer driven, allows anyone to look near their homes, schools, or anywhere they’d like and see where orphan wells are relative to that location.


Orphaned Well Basics:

This source is from The Environmental Defense Fund that outlines what an orphaned well is and basic information about wells across the United States.


This link is to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s orphaned wells page. This outlines how the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be impactful for addressing orphaned wells across the United States.


Videos:

This video is from PBS NewsHour that outlines what orphaned wells are and how they are impacting air quality and the environment in Louisiana.


This video is from Insider Business and features an in-depth overview of orphaned wells across the U.S. and how people are working to address this problem.


Peer-reviewed Studies:

This article is from Environmental Science and Technology (Boutot et al. 2022), which focuses on spatial trends and geographic information associated with orphaned wells.


This source is from Geophysical Research Letters (Townsend-Small et al. 2016), which covers methane emissions from abandoned and orphaned wells.


This source is from Environmental Research Letters (Townsend-Small and Hoschouer 2021), which focuses on wells in the Texas Permian Basin and their methane emissions. Additionally, this source displays how these wells could have “massive potential consequences for human health, agriculture, and surface water quality” (Townsend-Small and Hoschouer 2021).



Amy Townsend-Small and research assistant Jacob Hoschouer measure methane emissions from wells, Source: Christopher Collins via Grist


Conclusion:

Having reliable and accurate information is a cornerstone of addressing any problem. Researchers around the country like Townsend-Small are working to analyze the ways in which orphaned wells are impacting Americans and our natural resources. This information is vital in the process of addressing orphaned wells across the U.S. as policy and regulations can use this information to stay up to date. Additionally, public awareness plays an important role in undertaking the large-scale dilemma of orphaned wells in America, and research is critical in raising public awareness. This is important because part of FEP’s mission is to research orphaned wells and use this information to bridge the gap between the past and solutions for the future.


References:

American Oil & Gas Historical Society. 2022. “First American Oil Well”. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://aoghs.org/petroleum-pioneers/american-oil-history/

Jade Boutot, Adam S. Peltz, Renee McVay, and Mary Kang

Environmental Science & Technology 2022 56 (20), 14228-14236

DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.2c03268


Collins, Christopher. Sadasivam, Naveena. 2021. “One researcher’s quest to quantify the environmental cost of abandoned oil wells”. Grist. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://grist.org/energy/amy-townsend-small-study-methane-pecos-county-texas-abandoned-wells/


Department of the Interior. N.d. “Orphaned Wells”. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.doi.gov/orphanedwells


Environmental Defense Fund. 2022. “Plugging Orphan Wells Across the United States”. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.edf.org/orphanwellmap


Nemo, Leslie. 2022. “To fine old methane-leaking oil wells, researchers look to history”. Accessed July 25, 2023. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/to-find-old-methane-leaking-oil-wells-researchers-look-to-history


PBS NewsHour. 2022. “Abandoned oil and natural gas wells pollute the environment across Louisiana”. Accessed July 20, 2023. Abandoned oil and natural gas wells pollute the environment across Louisiana


Saint-Vincent, Patricia M. B, James I Sams, Richard W Hammack, Garret A Veloski, and Natalie J Pekney. “Identifying Abandoned Well Sites Using Database Records and Aeromagnetic Surveys.” Environmental science & technology 54, no. 13 (2020): 8300–8309.


Townsend‐Small, Amy, Thomas W. Ferrara, David R. Lyon, Anastasia E. Fries, and Brian K. Lamb. 2016. “Emissions of Coalbed and Natural Gas Methane from Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells in the United States.” Geophysical research letters 43, no. 5 (February): 2283–2290.


Townsend‐Small, Amy, E. Claire Botner, Kristine L. Jimenez, Jason R. Schroeder, Nicola J. Blake, Simone Meinardi, Donald R. Blake, et al. 2016. “Using Stable Isotopes of Hydrogen to Quantify Biogenic and Thermogenic Atmospheric Methane Sources: A Case Study from the Colorado Front Range.” Geophysical Research Letters 43, no. 21 (October): 11,462–11,471.


Townsend-Small, Amy, and Jacob Hoschouer. 2021. “Direct Measurements from Shut-in and Other Abandoned Wells in the Permian Basin of Texas Indicate Some Wells Are a Major Source of Methane Emissions and Produced Water.” Environmental Research Letters 16, no. 5 (May): 54081–.


U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2022. “U.S. Oil and Natural Gas Wells by Production Rate”. Accessed July 20, 2023. https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/wells/


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