It’s Time to Get Serious about Plugging Orphaned Wells

Oklahoma has a long history with oil and gas. It helped build our economy and our cities before we were even a state, and it’s a driving force in our economy, and our culture, today. While people across the country contend with the future of this industry, there is one thing about which we should all agree: we need to do something about orphaned wells.

According to Grist, there were about 800 unplugged wells, and more than 12,000 “orphaned” wells, in Oklahoma as of December 2020. There are millions of these wells across the country, each one a little ticking time bomb ready to go off at any time. Correctly and effectively plugging these wells is an idea everyone can get behind, and it’s about time we did.

What’s an orphaned well?

For those of you who may not have grown up around here, an orphaned well is an abandoned well: one that has been taken out of production because it no longer produces enough oil to be viable, or – and this is more common than you think – the company that owned the well went bankrupt. The last few years have been hard for oil companies, but 2019 into 2020 was particularly hard; Rystad Energy estimates that as many as 170 exploration and production (E&P) companies may go bankrupt in 2021. Bankrupt companies can’t cap wells, so there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of additional unplugged wells in Oklahoma by the end of the year.

For the record, Oklahoma defines orphaned wells as ones that “could technically be ‘adopted’ and pumped again,” but the truth is that most (if not all) will end up slated for plugging.

Why do oil wells need to be plugged?

Whether it’s an unplugged oil well or a water well, there’s always a safety risk. They’re usually rusty and leaking chemicals, and they may not be properly marked, so there’s always a risk someone could fall get hurt (or get tetanus).

But the real risk of unplugged wells is the release of methane, and ground and water contamination. Per Grist:

an unknown number of unplugged wells leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more effective at heating up the planet than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere. At high enough concentrations, methane carries a risk of explosion, and it’s often accompanied by other chemicals that are dangerous to human health, like benzene, a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and low birth weights.

Research cited by Oklahoma Minerals backs their data up: “In addition to leaking likely carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde into local communities, uncapped wells are massive methane emitters. EPA estimates unplugged oil and gas wells leaked 7 million metric tons of methane in 2018, roughly equal to 1.5 million cars, with actual emissions likely far higher due to incomplete data.”

If unplugged wells are so bad, why aren’t we capping them?

Because capping wells costs money, and that money is voluntarily donated, collected by oil and gas operators through excise taxes, or through bond forfeitures. The cost of the well, per the Southwest Ledger, depends on where it is located. In Tulsa County, for example, the average cost is $5 per foot of well depth. In Dewey, it’s $5.50, and in Washita, it’s $6. A dollar may not sound like a lot, but the average depth of an oil well in 2014 was 5,964 feet. So:

  • Cost to plug a well in Tulsa County: $29,320
  • Cost to plug a well in Dewey County: $32,252
  • Cost to plug a well in Washita County: $35,184

So the cost, based on these costs, it would be between $23,456,000 and $28,147,200 to plug the 800 wells we know about – and could easily enter the billions, given the estimated 12,000 wells that are abandoned in our state.

Of course, in the end, plugging the wells is completely worth it, given that we could cut off about 99% of all methane emissions. Still – numbers like this can be a hard sell. Organizations like the Well Done Foundation have been trying to raise money to plug shallow wells in Montana, and Texas’s Native State’s “Drill One Plug One” campaign was starting to get traction when COVID-19 hit, so movement has been slow. The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) claims to have cleaned up more than 18,000 sites across the state, so there are people working on it.

There just aren’t enough of them.

Aren’t oil and gas companies required to plug their wells when they’re done with them?

Yes, they are. There are federal laws requiring this, and Oklahoma has its own set of laws, too. In fact, Oklahoma can put a lien on drilling equipment at abandoned wells, as long as it’s been 12 months since the well was active.

But many of the state and federal laws went into effect long after wells were abandoned, giving those companies neither carrot nor stick to force their hands. And again, there are the bankruptcies and sales to contend with, too. If ABC Petroleum owned 1000 unplugged wells before it went out of business, there’s no one to plug them, now. Further, if ABC Petroleum decides to sell off its wells instead, the purchasing company – XZY Petroleum – is under no obligation to plug them either; remember, in Oklahoma, an “orphaned” well is one that may end up being pumped again. And why would you plug a well that you may put into active rotation again?

How can I help plug orphaned wells in Oklahoma?

If you know of an abandoned well, you can register the site with the OERB. You should never try to plug a well on your own; improper plugging can cause serious damage and could potentially lead to a fatal injury if the gas is allowed to build up in the well. You can also call your representatives and encourage them to pursue legislation that would allow for faster, more effective plugging of oil and gas wells.

At Biby Law Firm, we know that oil & gas is the lifeblood of Oklahoma. We just want to make sure that our state stays as healthy and as beautiful as it can, so that future generations can enjoy its offerings, too. If you were hurt while working in the patch, or sustained an injury near an orphaned well, call us in Tulsa to schedule a free consultation: 918-416-6287, or fill out our contact form.