Millions live near abandoned oil and gas wells. What does the government plan to do about it?

Stephen Foulger, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, uses a Flir gas detection camera during an inspection of an oil pump site near Roosevelt on Dec. 1, 2021.

Stephen Foulger, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, uses a Flir gas detection camera during an inspection of an oil pump site near Roosevelt on Dec. 1, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of Americans live near an abandoned oil or gas well — 9 million live within just one mile.

Long forgotten by energy companies who packed up once they're no longer viable or went bankrupt, "orphaned wells" spew toxic methane gas and pose a serious public health risk.

A new program spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management and bolstered by the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package is aimed at plugging those forgotten wells, which are found in over half of the nation's states.

The package sets aside almost $5 billion for plugging wells, tracking methane emissions and land remediation. As of Thursday 26 states, including Utah, have issued a notice of intent to apply for a formula grant, one of three grants states can request under the program.

The money will be allocated based on how many wells a state has. An additional grant of up to $25 million and a performance grant that will require states to apply annually are also available.

The program is being touted as an economic boost, and stakeholders say workers will be in demand to plug the wells, remediate the land and remove old infrastructure.

What are orphaned wells and how many are in the U.S.?

The numbers are disputed, and some groups say there are close to 215,000 orphaned wells across the country, while the latest estimate from the U.S. Department of the Interior is 130,000 — twice as many as the department estimated in 2019.

That discrepancy is due in part to certain agencies having different definitions for what constitutes an orphaned well, including whether an operator can be identified. Idle, abandoned and orphaned wells are sometimes conflated or segmented depending on the government agency or nonprofit doing the categorization. There are likely close to 2 million abandoned wells in the U.S., according to most estimates. Orphaned wells are included in this umbrella.

Regardless of the definition of an orphaned well, there are probably more than the federal government's current estimate. During a recent webinar, Steve Feldgus, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Interior, said that 130,000 figure doesn't include "the countless numbers we don't know."

Hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, the webinar gave an overview of the program, which starts in about a week. Nearly 800 people tuned in to listen to the panelists, which included the department's new director, Tracy Stone-Manning, members of state-level oil and gas agencies, environmental nonprofits, landowners and contractors who will be tasked with plugging the wells.

In the Beehive State, many are found in the Uintah Basin, the state's most lucrative oil and gas producing region, and on the Utah corner of the Navajo Nation. Several are scattered across Grand County and along Interstate 70, once a hotbed for the industry.

Like the national figures, it's unclear exactly how many orphaned wells are in Utah. Some estimates are over 1,000 — the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining currently documents 71, although that number excludes wells on tribal land. John Baza, director of the division, says there are probably no more than 400 across the state.

The mix of federal, tribal, state and private land in Western states makes documenting orphaned wells difficult. The varying definition depending on the state or federal agency also adds to the complications.

Some have been abandoned for decades, maybe close to a century. "They've been out there for years and years and years," said Jeff Leitzell, the executive vice president of EOG Resources, an American energy company.

During the webinar he said equipment is often stuck downhole, or the casing could have structural issues, which poses logistical and financial problems. Depth and age all factor into the cost, which ranges from $30,000 to $150,000 per well.

Stephen Foulger, an environmental scientist with the
Utah Department of Environmental Quality, uses a Flir gas detection
camera during an inspection of an oil pump site near Roosevelt on
Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Stephen Foulger, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, uses a Flir gas detection camera during an inspection of an oil pump site near Roosevelt on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

What will plugging orphaned wells in Utah look like?

In Utah, the majority are on federal land.

"I think the numbers on BLM land, at least in Utah, probably outnumber the state wells by a factor of three or four to one," Baza said.

Baza says there are only 26 currently in the division's inventory, but that's because the agency primarily works to plug orphaned wells on state or private land.

Utah is already plugging between five to 20 wells each year, and with the federal grant Baza says the state should be able to tackle the inventory soon. Statewide declines in oil and gas production means more orphaned wells could pop up, but it likely won't outpace the division's remediation.

The federal government, meanwhile, will be charged with the orphaned wells on federal land. Officials said they will prioritize which wells to tackle first based on public health risks, environmental harm and land use priorities.

Coordination between the BLM and states is still a key part of the program, and Baza said they will work with the bureau to plug wells on federal land that are near projects on state or private property.

Utah law also gives the Division of Oil Gas and Mining authority to regulate the entire state, regardless of who owns the land. The division could take over a certain well or area if it feels like the federal government isn't adequately addressing a problem, but that could cause complications.

"Let's say there was an environmental problem involving a well on federal land, I don't think we would have any problem saying, 'If you're not going to address it BLM, then we will step in and do it,'" Baza said.

"But we don't want to have the primary liability. Because frankly, they'll be managing those wells differently than we would and we shouldn't be burdened with a responsibility that was maybe created by how the BLM is defining an idle well."

Methane, other toxins cause health problems

Utah hosts a fraction of the country's orphaned wells — some of the largest concentrations are in California, Oklahoma, Missouri, New Mexico, Texas, West Virginia, Illinois and Louisiana. According to an estimate from Statista, there are over 330,000 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania alone, although many of those wells have an identifiable operator which means they technically aren't orphaned.

The communities next to these abandoned wells suffer. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and other toxic chemicals like benzene, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide can contaminate surrounding water and air.

It's best illustrated by Kayley Shoup, who lives in New Mexico's oil-rich Permian Basin and is a member of the group Citizens Caring for Our Future.

"When I think of contaminated water, when I think of polluted air, I don't just think of it in a literal sense. I think of having to take my mom to chemo, I think of friends in their 20s that are battling rare and aggressive cancers. I think of fundraisers for a little girl with leukemia," she said during the webinar.

"... I don't have all of these stories of ill people because I'm just a girl that's particularly unlucky. No, that's because I'm from a sacrifice zone. And the environmental pollution surrounding us really is killing us."

Even though Utah has a smaller inventory than New Mexico, much of its orphaned wells are still in or adjacent to rural and tribal communities, and some adverse health effects have been documented. It's hard to attribute direct causation, but in 2015 Rolling Stone reported the fracking boom town Vernal had an abnormally high rate of infant mortality.

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Kyle Dunphey

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