(Image: USFWS. Uncovering America’s abandoned and orphaned oil wells)
The world has been addicted to oil for decades, and abandoned and orphaned oil wells are now a global issue. When The Surge examined this particular phenomenon in the United States alone, they found an alarming number of orphaned wells (these are oil and gas wells with no viable owner to manage them) and a varied set of state rules covering who must take responsibility for them.
Large-scale oil drilling has been going on since the 1850s. In theory, once an oil or gas well is redundant it should be sealed permanently. Typically, that means plugging wells with steel casing and filling them with concrete. But orphaned oil wells are those that have simply been abandoned, often by small-time chancers rather than responsible producers.
As of 2016, The Surge estimated that there was something in the region of two million abandoned and orphaned oil wells in the United States alone. Business Insider, however, suggests the number might be as high as three million, posing a major problem for states as abandoned oil wells slowly poison our atmosphere and the landscape around them.
Scientists believe these defunct wells are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The odourless, invisible gas methane is one of the greatest problems in global warming. A 2014 study found that abandoned and orphaned oil wells might account for four to seven percent of man-made methane emissions in the state of Pennsylvania alone. Add to that the fact that no-one is entirely sure how many forgotten wells there are, and the problem mounts.
Both Business Insider and The Surge touch on the problems that arise with no federal regulation for the capping and sealing of abandoned oil and gas wells, as states are left to deal with the situation themselves. But even those wells that are plugged aren’t necessarily plugged correctly. One expert said that some owners had use tree trunks to cap wells during times – such as World War Two – when other materials were scarce.
The cost of addressing this problem is significant. Plugging a single orphaned oil well – and rehabilitating the nearby land can cost up to (and more than) $100,000. And there’s still no telling how many abandoned oil wells lie hidden from view in woodland or even the basements of houses.
So if you’re driving across the American landscape and notice the silhouette of long defunct drilling equipment, spare a thought for the many other wells that have yet to be uncovered, and not just across the United States, but the wider world too.