Written By Kennedy Metcalf, Published October 4, 2023
I got the opportunity to talk with Daniel Raimi, a fellow at Resources for the Future. We talked about the cost of plugging wells and the cost of leaving orphaned and abandoned wells unplugged.
Plugging wells can be a costly process. Many factors go into determining the final cost to plug like the age of the well, the condition of the infrastructure, the location, depth, etc. Additionally, wells not only need to be plugged but site reclamation is also an important part of the plugging process, this includes removing any infrastructure and returning vegetation into the area. Including reclamation in the estimates can make the process significantly more expensive. Costs have been an inhibiting problem for addressing orphaned wells. Therefore, the cost of plugging is considered to be one of the main reasons why wells get abandoned or become orphaned.
Furthermore, there are costs associated with not plugging these orphaned wells. Many documented orphaned wells leak oil and gas or other toxic chemicals directly into the air or surrounding bodies of water (EDF 2022). This poses an environmental and health risk for communities or individuals near orphaned wells.
This image is of an abandoned well in PA, source: Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
The Cost to Plug:
The average cost to plug a well as determined from a study in 2021 and a data set of 19,500 wells with surface reclamation included is $76,000 (Raimi et al, 2021). As this is the average, there are many wells that are not very expensive to plug if they are in good condition and relatively shallow (Raimi et al 2021). However, if wells are much deeper, or contain compromised infrastructure the cost to plug and reclaim may exceed $1 million (Raimi et al. 2021).
Cost should not be the only consideration when choosing which wells to plug. Prioritization of wells is a crucial step that can ensure that the money spent on well-plugging is going to good use. Prioritizing wells should include factors such as distance to water, distance to people, condition of the well, and if it is leaking any material. Raimi emphasized the importance of good prioritization; this can help get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to plugging these wells.
This graphic displays data from the study Decommissioning Orphaned and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: New Estimates and Cost Drivers
The Social and Environmental Costs of Orphan Wells:
The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that about 14 million Americans live within one mile of a documented orphaned well (EDF 2022). These wells leaking toxic compounds into the air and water can put many people at risk of exposure. If a well were to contaminate drinking water, it would be costly for the city to address this problem, which would require the well to be plugged and the cleanup of the water source. On a larger scale, leaking methane into the atmosphere from these wells causes an environmental cost. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, adding more methane into the atmosphere is harmful for long-term management of the effects of climate change.
These wells can also be dangerous. In addition to leaking compounds into water and air, these wells can potentially be explosive in some cases (Turrentine 2021). When explosions occur, not only can they be incredibly dangerous for people nearby, but they can also be very costly to clean up and fix the damage. This is an example of how orphaned wells can act as a costly liability for the communities they are located within. Not plugging orphaned wells can create different costs for people and communities nearby.
Plugging orphaned wells is a complicated process that can oftentimes be very expensive. This is one of the main reasons that the backload of orphaned wells has increased over the last few decades to the documented estimate we have today. However, these orphaned wells pose a threat as they are located near many people in the United States. The environmental and social costs of not plugging these wells make the case for why it is essential to document and plug orphaned wells without cost being the sole determining factor.
Environmental Defense Fund. 2022. “Plugging Orphan Wells Across the United States”. Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.edf.org/orphanwellmap
Raimi, Daniel, Alan J Krupnick, Jhih-Shyang Shah, and Alexandra Thompson. “Decommissioning Orphaned and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells: New Estimates and Cost Drivers.” Environmental science & technology 55, no. 15 (2021): 10224–10230.
Turrentine, Jeff. 2021. Millions of Leaky and Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Are Threatening Lives and the Climate”. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/millions-leaky-and-abandoned-oil-and-gas-wells-are-threatening-lives-and-climate