Who will clean up America's abandoned oil wells?
President Biden wants to give billions in extra funding to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells contaminating the air, soil and groundwater. But why must taxpayers foot the bill?
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These rolling hills high in the northeast of the United States may seem unspoiled. But this region is the birthplace of the American oil industry. The country's first commercial oil well wasn't sunk in Texas, but here in Pennsylvania, way back in 1859. It was the first of a vast number of wells drilled and worked dry across the state.
Hey, good morning, Myles.
When their wells are no longer viable responsible companies employ experts like Luke Plants to seal them up, preventing any leaks or contamination in the future.
I'm going to give you one of these.
And then we'll go take a look around the site.
That'd be great. Thank you very much.
But in the pioneering, unregulated oil rush days, many drill sites went unrecorded, unplugged, and abandoned and now honeycomb the ground, including under cities and towns.
Many wells exist in places that have grown up around them, so suburbs and urban areas that were developed long after the well was drilled. And now they present a threat to human life.
These images from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection show toxic gas and liquids belching from old wells, contaminating the air and threatening to poison drinking water. One study has estimated that the methane emissions from the US's tally of abandoned wells is equivalent to the annual CO2 output of 2.1m cars. Some forgotten well heads have even been uncovered under people's homes. Plugging and sealing off a disused well is hazardous, highly specialised work that can take a lot of time and money.
Watch your step.
The idea sounds simple enough. Insert pipes into the well using this towering rig, then link them up to inject concrete into all the nooks and crannies below.
So you're going from the bottom all the way up to the top until finally you've completely sealed off your wellbore.
But not every job is the same. Old bores that have crumbled or collapsed can take a month to excavate and plug. And the sheer number of abandoned wells in this state alone is staggering.
Since the country's first oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, 70 miles to my west, there have been hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells drilled across the state.
A DEP map shows the extent of the problem in Pennsylvania, the locations of plugged wells in blue swamped by the uncapped abandoned wells found so far in red and green. Many more disused and undiscovered wells lie scattered across the country. To tune into the wider scale of the problem, I've crossed state lines to Washington DC to Meet Daniel Raimi, an academic and expert on the subject at environmental think-tank Resources for the Future.
Daniel, how are you?
I'm doing well. Nice to see you.
Nice to see you, too. Thanks for having us in. What kind of a scale of a problem are we talking here?
The scale is actually pretty staggering. The US EPA estimates that there are about 2.1m abandoned unplugged oil and gas wells scattered across the country. These are wells that aren't being used for production or injection or other productive purposes, and they also haven't been plugged. They haven't been sealed off. In addition to those 2.1m wells there are estimates that there are up to 1m orphaned oil and gas wells. These are also abandoned, but they don't have a legal owner.
The dilemma surrounding so-called orphaned wells is that their original owners have either disappeared or gone bankrupt. Orphans effectively become wards of the state, meaning taxpayers are left to cover the costs of making them safe. One estimate puts the average cost of plugging and cleaning up an open well at $76,000.
But contractors say that figure can vary from $10,000 to $1.5m. depending on the well. Before breaking ground on any new well plot, oil companies generally pay a bond upfront to the relevant state or federal authority. In theory, it's there to cover the cost of any future clean-up, should the company go bust. But in practise any securities paid are rarely enough.
The problem is almost all of the regulations at the state level don't give regulators enough money to actually plug the wells that would become orphans when a company goes bankrupt.
Help for cash-strapped states may be on the way. Around $5bn has been specifically set aside for cleaning up old wells in a bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. That figure falls short of proposals put forward by President Biden. But I wonder whether a share of the funds would make a real difference for states like Pennsylvania. Its pioneering history of unfettered, unrecorded drilling means that the Keystone State is thought to have, by far, the most abandoned wells in America.
On the way home I dropped by the state capital of Harrisburg to meet Scott Perry. It's his team at the Department of Environmental Protection who arrange the plugging of problem wells when no one else can or will pay. The budget is tight, and clean-up jobs have to be prioritised.
Every well we find we rank it according to its threat to public safety, to the environment.
So would a slice of the infrastructure bill money make a significant dent in the long list of leaky wells to be fixed?
If we're only able to plug, say, 10 wells a year and we've got 8,500 to go, we're in for a long haul. But the federal stimulus money could potentially enable us to clear that ledger.
Much has been made of the potential for new jobs, as politicians weigh the benefits of the multibillion dollar clean-up bill. But many experts say policymakers need to think longer term. To tackle the root of the problem, they argue, any federal handouts should be tied to commitments from states to reform their bonding systems so that they can better afford to deal with the issue in the future. That will become all the more critical as a transition away from oil and gas in the coming decades risks a dramatic rise in the number of wells being abandoned. And unless states force the industry to shell out the clean-up costs up front, taxpayers could be left, once again, footing a hefty bill.