Planet Sludge: Millions of Abandoned, Leaking Oil Wells and Natural-Gas Wells Destined to Foul Our Future

Planet Sludge: Millions of Abandoned, Leaking Oil Wells and Natural-Gas Wells Destined to Foul Our Future by Steven Kotler, September 9, 2012, ecohearth
This in-depth EcoHearth report indicates these are just a prelude to more numerous natural gas and oil drilling catastrophes to come—and a small percentage of ongoing leaks, the vast majority of which go undetected or unreported. Each day hundreds of thousands of abandoned leaking oil wells and natural-gas wells spew toxic pollutants into the environment—and tens of millions more will soon join them—thanks to fatally flawed gas and oil-well capping and lax or nonexistent industry and government oversight. A three-month investigation has revealed this developing environmental calamity that almost no one is paying attention to and that gravely threatens ecosystems worldwide. There are at minimum 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells—none permanently capped—littering the US, and an estimated 20-30 million globally. There is no known technology for securely sealing these tens of millions of abandoned wells. … Aquifers are being destroyed. Some of these abandoned wells are explosive, capable of building-leveling, toxin-spreading detonations. And thanks to primitive capping technologies, virtually all are leaking now—or will be. Largely ignored by both industry and governments, this problem has been growing for 150 years, ever since the first oil wells were drilled. Each abandoned well is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The triggers include accidents, earthquakes, natural erosion, re-pressurization (either spontaneous or precipitated by fracking) and, simply, time.

“If there are 2.5 million abandoned wells in the US alone,” says Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and marine conservation specialist, “then there are easily tens of millions of abandoned wells globally—including all of the traditional oil and gas provinces in the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Canada, Mexico, and so forth. Without the data, it’s a guess, but a good guess would be 20-30 million abandoned wells globally. Unfortunately, most nations do not even keep track of these, much less any sort of global monitoring and assessment.”

“Well drilling began in 1859 in Pennsylvania,” says Bill Pine, Chief of the Subsurface Activity Section of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (which is charged with plugging abandoned oil wells), “and it’s a safe bet the very first well abandoned in Pennsylvania was in 1859. We have thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells in the Commonwealth. I don’t think anyone has an accurate record of how many really exist.” In Texas, things are even murkier. …

How securely are these abandoned wells sealed? Not very. The AP report touched on the oil industry’s well-sealing technology, which relies on cement. It noted that “whether a well is permanently or temporarily abandoned, improperly applied or aging cement can crack or shrink,” making these abandoned wells “an environmental minefield.” Faulty cement application puts a select set of wellheads at risk, but aging cement means that every single one of the tens of millions of abandoned wells worldwide has the potential for ecological disaster. Bob Cavnar, Luca Technologies CEO and 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, says “The way the oil and gas industry approaches old wells is to plug them, cover them up and forget about them. Although the goal is that these plugs last forever, because of aging and corrosion, there is always a risk they will leak.”If they’re on land, leaks can lead to methane buildup that may cause explosions, which, of course, create more leaks. Abandoned wells can also re-pressurize, in much the same way a dormant volcano can wake up, and the results can be anything from groundwater contamination to a disaster of the Deepwater Horizon variety.

Well-released greenhouse gases, meanwhile, are toxic and at least one, methane, is highly explosive. “We’ve had cases in Pennsylvania,” says Pine, “when an abandoned gas well started leaking. We’ve seen garages, outhouses even houses blow up. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”

Tamminen points out that an expansive (and long contested) housing development in Playa Vista, California was built atop so many greenhouse-gas-leaking abandoned oil wells that the developers had to “pay off 60 different oil inspectors to get them to shut up about it. Instead they put in a pressure-release system. But there are warning signs in parking garages about methane. And the first time a well-casing cracks? These things are literally ticking time bombs.”

Who’s watching the tens of millions of abandoned wells around the world, so that leaks can be promptly detected and well heads resealed? In most cases, no one. … “The rules for temporarily abandoned wells have no teeth. Companies abandon wells and submit paperwork, but they don’t respect a well after that. It’s out of sight and out of mind.”

It’s no wonder the government is often asleep at the wheel; the energy industry, flush with money, can be very convincing. … Anyway, sealing them is one thing; without vigilant monitoring, only the worst leaks will be caught. Even if they are discovered, who’s going to fix them?

“Oil is the richest enterprise in the history of human commerce,” he says. “There is no reason this entire issue—plugging, monitoring, anything else that’s required—isn’t fully funded by the industry.” [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Halcyon hot springs vanish after B.C. quake 

Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment: Groundwater Quality ]

This entry was posted in Global Frac News. Bookmark the permalink.