More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells and many of them are leaching pollutants into the air and water. Drilling companies continue to abandon even more wells as demand for oil diminishes and bankruptcies become more common.
Leaks from abandoned wells have long been known to be an environmental problem and a health hazard. They have been linked to many instances of groundwater contamination and to dangerous fumes near homes and farms.
There have recently been efforts to track the amounts of methane leaching from abandoned oil and gas wells, and the figures in United States are alarming. According to the most recent EPA report, more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted a total of 281,000 tons of methane in 2018. That is the climate-damage equivalent of consuming about 16 million barrels of crude oil, which is as much as the U.S. uses in a typical day. According to the EPA, the actual amount could be as much as three times higher, because of incomplete data. The agency believes that most of the methane comes from more than 2 million abandoned wells that were never properly plugged.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has records of over 2,000 abandoned wells, but the state believes the actual number could be much higher. This is a problem that won’t just go away. Wells don’t leak for a year and then stop. They can continue to leak for a century or more. Cleaning up and plugging an abandoned well runs from $20,000 to $145,000, meaning that countrywide, cleaning up this environmental menace could cost somewhere between $60 billion and $435 billion.
Special Report: Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace
Photo, posted October 13, 2015, courtesy of Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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