What health considerations are there?

Air & Water Quality and Safety

If wells are not properly sealed when they are abandoned, they can pose a safety risk to residents and livestock, as well as air and water quality risks, given that contaminants could be released into the air or migrate to ground and surface waters. When this has been suspected of occurring, it has been linked to old, historically abandoned sites (orphaned wells). A 2013 study conducted in New York found that three-fourths of the abandoned oil and gas wells had never been plugged. 1 The National Petroleum Council also acknowledged the problem nationwide in a 2011 working paper. 2 Furthermore, a 2014 study of 19 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania – some dating back to the 19th century – found that not only were most of them unplugged, but both plugged and unplugged wells were also leaking methane. Extrapolating the amount released from the wells under study, the researchers estimated that such abandoned wells could be responsible for 4%-7% of the state’s methane emissions in 2010. 3   

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, has been studying the problem of orphaned wells and making recommendations to the states, which are ultimately responsible for locating and plugging the wells. As of 2007, the states had identified about 60,000 such wells, with potentially 90,000 more yet to be located. 4 The IOGCC concluded that while the states have improved their response to the problem, funding remains an issue. 5 The IOGCC therefore recommended that wells presenting the greatest safety risks be prioritized and urged states and industry to collaborate in finding creative solutions. 6  

Notes:

  1. R. E. Bishop, “Historical Analysis of Oil and Gas Well Plugging in New York: Is the Regulatory System Working?New Solutions 23, no. 1 (2013), 113- 114.
  2. National Petroleum Council, Plugging and Abandoning Oil and Gas Wells (2011).
  3. Mary Kang, Cynthia M. Kanno, Matthew C. Reid, Xin Zhang, Denise L. Mauzerall, Michael A. Celia, Yuheng Chen, and Tullis C. Onstott, “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells in Pennsylvania,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111,  no. 51 (December 23, 2014), 18173-18174.
  4. Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), Protecting Our Country’s Resources: The StatesCase (2007), 3.
  5. IOGCC, Protecting Our Country’s Resources, 16-17.
  6. IOGCC, Protecting Our Country’s Resources, 17.