In a column published in the Albuquerque Journal, Hari Viswanathan, an environmental scientist and the lead scientist on the Consortium Advancing Technology for Assessment of Lost Oil & Gas Wells consortium, explores the challenges, science and innovations involved in locating an estimated 300,000 to 1 million undocumented and abandoned energy wells that leak environmental contaminants.
Across New Mexico and the entire United States, hundreds of thousands of undocumented, orphaned oil-and-gas wells have the potential to pollute water and leak methane and other toxic gases into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures. The first challenge to plugging these wells is locating them.
A methane moment
Carbon dioxide gets the spotlight as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas that’s driving up average global temperatures, but methane is more than a bit player. While it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, in the short term, methane is 25 times more potent at trapping heat and accounts for a fifth of global warming. In 2021, the United States joined an international methane pledge to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels.
A wide range of sources release methane into the atmosphere: agriculture, swamps, animals, coal and oil and gas operations, including orphaned wells. Methane emissions from abandoned oil-and-gas wells are the tenth-largest methane source. Methane-leaking wells also have the potential to leak other contaminates into groundwater, soil and air. Orphaned wells’ owners have abandoned them, gone out of business, or disappeared — in any case, no one claims legal responsibility. Worse, many of the wells are not mapped or documented, so any information about their construction and location has been lost.
Finding them typically means scanning the ground with magnetometers, which rely on the Earth’s weak magnetic field to spot steel in the ground. Unfortunately, the metal can evade detection like a needle in a haystack, and many well casings were ripped out of the ground in the quest for scrap steel during World War II — sometimes, there’s only a haystack, with no needle. So the wells have to be found using other methods.
Developing and refining new methods to find these wells is a big part of the mission of a new consortium funded with $40 million by the Department of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The DOE effort is designed to support the Department of Interior’s $4.7 billion investment to plug and remediate orphaned oil and gas wells. Los Alamos is providing technical guidance for the DOE effort. New Mexico received $25 million in DOI initial grants to find and fix its orphaned wells.
Led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Consortium Advancing Technology for Assessment of Lost Oil & Gas Wells includes representatives from four other national labs, stakeholders include the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the DOI. Together we’re locating and characterizing undocumented orphaned wells and measuring their methane emissions, while developing best practices for well remediation.
This information will help federal and state agencies around the country prioritize which wells should be plugged and cleaned up. Not all wells are causing big environmental problems — many emit less methane than a single cow. From a cost-benefit perspective, less problematic wells should be identified and pushed down the priority list in a kind of triage so the worst offenders can be fixed first.