August 01, 2022
The Nation & World section in today’s local newspaper carried an AP article on the emission problems caused from abandoned oil and gas wells in California. California law limits the amount of climate pollution and every year the limit gets stricter. California has historically been a large producer of oil and gas, and 35,000 inactive and uncapped wells now dot the landscape. Even though the locations of these wells are known, regulators do not monitor the wells and their methane emissions are not included in the inventory of the state’s emissions. The amount of methane (and other gasses) leaking from the wells is not known, but a 2020 study indicated the emissions from uncapped wells is “more substantial” than from capped wells. A ton of methane was found to be 83 times worse for the environment than a ton of carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. The Methane Accountability Project was signed into law in June 2022 by the State of California. This authorized spending US$100 million on satellites to track methane leaks.
When I looked online, I found methane gas in its natural form has no color or odor, which makes methane exposure particularly concerning. Methane exposure can cause health problems if you are exposed to concentrated quantities of the gas or if you’ve been exposed for extended periods of time. Methane poisoning is a bit of a misnomer, as rather than being toxic it acts as an asphyxiant, depriving your body of oxygen. Methane also poses a danger to the environment and is one of several greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and climate change. Greenhouse gases create a layer of insulation in the atmosphere that allows heat to enter the atmosphere then reflects the rays back towards the Earth rather than letting them escape again, increasing overall global temperature. Approximately 80% of greenhouse gases come from carbon dioxide emissions, 10% from methane, and the remaining 10% from various other sources.
An oil or gas well is considered abandoned when it’s reached the end of its useful life and is no longer producing enough fuel to make money. Many operators will then cap the well with a temporary seal. These wells may sit in an “idle” or “inactive” state for months or even years posing a risk for methane to leak into the atmosphere and toxic chemicals into groundwater until it is properly plugged with cement. If the company that owned the well went bankrupt, or if there is no owner found to plug or maintain it, the abandoned well is considered “orphaned.” The cost to plug an orphaned well varies depending on its age, depth, and location. In North Dakota, where some wells are drilled to depths of more than 20,000 feet, it can cost US$150,000 to plug a single well and restore the surrounding land. In Pennsylvania, the state budgets about US$33,000 to plug each well. Many states require companies to post bonds to pay for well plugging but the bond amount is generally far lower than the cost of plugging. On federal lands, the average amount held in bonds was just US$2,122 per well in 2018. Some groups are pushing states to tighten rules on how long a well can remain idle or to raise the bond amounts required of operators.
𝗧HOUGHTS: An effort in 2005 to obtain funding from Congress for a federal oil and gas well-plugging program failed to secure much money. States like Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and North Dakota, fund their plugging operations through fees or taxes paid by the oil and gas industry, but that money is not enough to plug all the abandoned wells. Environmental restoration by other extraction industries is also neglected or deemed inexpedient or of a low priority, even though in much of the industrialized world it has been increasingly demanded by the public since at least since the early 1970’s. If a company is allowed to make millions (billions?) of dollars by tearing the environment apart, should they not also be held accountable to make the site safe during extraction and put it back together once they are finished? Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.