Environmental risks and opportunities of orphaned oil and gas wells in the United States

Mary Kang, Jade Boutot, Renee C. McVay, Katherine A. Roberts, Scott Jasechko, Debra Perrone, Tao Wen, Greg Lackey, Daniel Raimi, Dominic C. Digiulio, Seth B.C. Shonkoff, J. William Carey, Elise G. Elliott, Donna J. Vorhees, Adam S. Peltz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations

Abstract

Hundreds of thousands of documented and undocumented orphaned oil and gas wells exist in the United States (U.S.). These wells have the potential to contaminate water supplies, degrade ecosystems, and emit methane and other air pollutants. Thus, orphaned wells present risks to climate stability and to environmental and human health, which can be reduced by plugging. To quantify environmental risks and opportunities of well plugging at the national level, we analyze data on 81 857 documented orphaned wells across the U.S. We find that > 4.6 million people live within 1 km of a documented orphaned well. 35% of the documented orphaned wells are located within 1 km of a domestic groundwater well, yet only 8% of the wells have groundwater quality data within a 1 km radius. Methane emissions from the documented orphaned wells represent approximately 3%-6% of total U.S. methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells, but this estimate is based on measurements at < 0.03% of U.S. abandoned wells. 91% of the documented orphaned wells overlie formations favorable for geologic storage of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, meaning that orphaned well plugging can reduce leakage risks from future storage projects. Finally, we estimate plugging costs for documented orphaned wells to exceed the $4.7 billion federal funding by 30%-80%, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing federal spending on wells with large remediation benefits. Overall, environmental monitoring data are not extensive enough to quantify risks, especially those related to air and water quality and human health. Plugging orphaned wells can provide opportunities for geologic storage of carbon dioxide and hydrogen and geothermal energy development, thereby facilitating efforts to transition to net-zero energy systems. Our analysis on environmental risks and opportunities of orphaned wells provides a framework that can be used to manage the millions of documented and undocumented orphaned wells in the U.S. and abroad.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number074012
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Volume18
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1 2023

Keywords

  • energy transition
  • environmental impacts
  • methane emissions
  • orphaned oil and gas wells
  • well plugging and abandonment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health

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