New bipartisan legislation would give U.S. orphan well management efforts a huge boost

Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) meets with oil industry and environmental group leaders at kick-off event for orphan well remediation program in Adams County, CO

By Adam Peltz and Meg Coleman

Across the country, a million or more orphaned oil and gas wells threaten the climate, public health, groundwater and surface waters and hamper local economic development. Help is on the way thanks to a major federal effort to invest $4.7 billion in closing orphan wells under the Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells Act as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but the scale of the problem is vast.

In order to get a handle on these orphaned wells, New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Luján , Democrat,  and North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, Republican,  worked together to secure well closure funding in BIL. Now, they have reintroduced the Abandoned Well Remediation Research and Development Act and a bipartisan group in the House led by Pennsylvania Rep. Summer Lee, Democrat,  and republican Oklahoma Rep. Stephanie Bice  have introduced a companion bill. This important, bipartisan legislation would invest more than $150 million over the next five years to help find an estimated 800,000 undocumented orphan wells, reuse those we can for beneficial purposes and ultimately close all of the rest more effectively and affordably. While partisan politics seem to divide the Capitol these days, it is exciting to see leaders on both sides of the aisle come together to address orphan wells.

AWRRDA supplements the REGROW Act in several important ways 

AWRRDA provides funding to research how to improve well plugging, locate undocumented orphan wells and study potential uses for both orphan and end-of-life wells.

New bipartisan legislation would give U.S. orphan well management efforts a huge boost Click To Tweet

While responsible well operators promptly plug their oil and gas wells when they run dry, many orphan wells have been abandoned for decades.  They can be found in hard to reach places such as streams, farmland, under houses and backyards. Difficult locations coupled with unknown well architecture, crumbling steel casings and weird things downhole like telephone poles, rolled up carpets and even cannon balls make orphan well plugging especially challenging.

But even for more straight-forward modern wells, plugging is expensive, with costs frequently exceeding $100,000 per well. In fact, the high cost of plugging is the primary reason why operators do not plug their wells at end of life, despite legal requirements to do so. And while modern plugging techniques are fairly effective, not all plugging efforts are successful, and there are open questions about the permanency of cement plugs over very long time horizons. Researching lower cost, higher efficacy ways to plug both end-of-life and orphan wells will reduce the overall cost of plugging the one million or more orphan wells nationwide.

To plug wells, we have to know where they are. While states have counted around 125,000 documented orphan wells, scientists estimate 800,000 more undocumented orphan wells may exist from the pre-regulatory era, primarily in Appalachia. Beyond that, the EPA estimates there may be upwards of 2.5 million inactive, unplugged wells across the country. Suffice it to say, there is a lot we don’t know about the undocumented orphan well problem, but we do know it’s vast, and it is problematic for public health, the climate and the environment.

While the REGROW Act under BIL provided $30 million for the Department of Energy to help find, characterize and prioritize undocumented orphan wells for closure, and Congress provided an additional $30 million toward that effort in the December 2022 appropriations omnibus, AWRRDA would more than double the funding to help locate and plug these wells.

While we need to locate and plug the vast majority of orphaned wells, AWRRDA will also study potential beneficial uses for both orphan and end-of-life wells. For a subset of wells, there are interesting, cost-saving opportunities like geothermal heat and power, carbon dioxide storage and solution mining for critical minerals like lithium. In one DOE project currently underway in Oklahoma, researchers are using four end-of-life wells to heat a nearby elementary school and middle school. Funds from AWRRDA will help develop projects like these around the country.

While the orphan well crisis is longstanding, widespread public awareness is new and we’re still learning how many orphan wells exist and how best to handle the issue. At the same time, we are grappling with how the country can effectively manage and close over one million active and idle wells.

The bipartisan AWRRDA will help us plug and repurpose orphan wells, facilitating the outcome we all want to see: a world in which we know where wells are, use them productively and close them promptly and affordably.

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