Gas Companies Abandon Wells Leaking Methane Forever

abandoned gas well leaking methane

Abandoned gas well site in California could have emitted more than 30 tons of methane. There are millions more like it see

On Nov. 10, 1984, when a drill bit pierced the surface of the Earth 4 miles north of Rio Vista, Calif., the story of gas well No. 095-20708 begins. Wells don't have birthdays, but this was the date of the drilling.

At a pace of 80 1⁄2 foot per hour, the drill chewed through the soil, hitting 846 feet below ground the first day. It had gotten a mile down by Thanksgiving, only stopping 49 days later, having laid 2.2 miles of steel pipe and cement on its way to the "pay zone," an underground field containing millions of dollars worth of natural gas.

Gas wells really never die, though. The miles of steel piping and cement have corroded over the years , providing routes to enter the surface for noxious gases. Methane, the principal ingredient of natural gas, is the most worrisome of these. If a bullet is carbon dioxide, then methane is a blast. Odorless and invisble, for two decades and at least 25 times more over a century, it captures 86 times more heat than CO2. Once sequestered in the deep pockets and grooves of the Planet, fracking has unleashed this powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, where it is causing more havoc than humans can keep up with.

207 oil and gas companies have collapsed in the last five years. The fiscal strain on states forced to plug wells could surge as natural gas prices crater; according to Rystad Energy AS, a market analytics firm, by the end of 2022 190 more companies could file for bankruptcy. In the expectation that prices will rise again, many oil and gas firms are idling their wells by capping them. Capping, however, only lasts about two decades, and it does little to prevent tens of thousands of low-producing wells from being orphaned, meaning "there is no associate or organization with any financial link and responsibility for the well," according to Geologic Energy Management Department in California.

It’s cheaper to idle them than to clean them up.  Once prices increase, they could be profitable to operate again. It gives them a strong reason to not do cleanup now. 

Researchers have tracked the increasingly bad news globally. Methane bubbles were found by German scientists in the sea bed around orphaned wells in the North Sea. They found major leaks in 28 by taking direct measurements of 43 wells. Researchers in Alberta estimated methane leaks in approximately 5 per cent of the 315,000 oil and gas wells in the province. In the U.K., in 30 percent of 102 wells tested, researchers find "fugitive methane emissions". 

There's no easy way to get up the thousands of feet of steel and cement necessary to get gas out of a well. That means filling the well is the only way to prevent it from leaking. Plugging a well costs between $20,000 and $145,000, according to US figures. Office of Government Transparency. The cost may run as high as $300,000 for the new shale wells.

According to a study released earlier this year, the expense of plugging only the deserted wells of California – an estimated 5,500 – could exceed $550 million. Though not an insignificant price tag, if the industry fails and walks away for good the real shock will come. The cost of plugging and decommissioning 107,000 active and idled wells could run to $9 billion in that doomsday scenario. And yet, as of 2020, 1,679 new drilling permits have been authorized by California.

Congressional attempts are stagnant to establish a well-plugging cleanup program. Over the past century and a half, oil and gas firms have made trillions of dollars in profits while enjoying relative impunity. On federal lands, where oil and gas firms are aggressively drilling, bond prices have not been adjusted for inflation since 1951, when they were set at $10,000 for a single well and $150,000 for however many wells one operator manages nationally. A business that drills 10,000 feet or more in California only needs $40,000.

Although little is being done to prevent drastic warming from producing methane, less is being done to prevent pollution of water. Researcher Kang, now a structural engineering assistant professor at McGill University, worked as a groundwater monitoring contractor before receiving her Ph.D. In 2016 she published a paper with Jackson showing that as previously believed, California's Central Valley, where a quarter of the nation's food is grown, has nearly three times the amount of fresh groundwater. Such good news came with an immediate caveat: Nineteen percent of the wells in the state came near these aquifers. According to a 2017 study from the Northern California Water Group, approximately 30 per cent of the region's water comes from subsurface sources.

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