Looking for what's lost

A Los Alamos scientist leads a consortium that locates orphaned wells.

By Jill Gibson | November 29, 2023

Nss Winter 2023   Looking   Publication Feature with Title
Los Alamos scientists prepare to launch a drone in search of abandoned oil and gas wells. Researchers suspect there may be as many as 2 million orphaned wells across the United States. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Abandoned and forgotten—that’s the plight of hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells in the United States, which are known as orphaned wells. Based on information from most oil- and gas-producing states, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) estimates the number of undocumented orphaned wells to be between 310,000 and 800,000, though the true number is likely higher. Some researchers suspect that as many as 2 million undocumented orphaned wells exist across the United States. 

Many orphaned wells date back to the 1850s—long before any environmental regulations were in place. Companies drilled wells and then went bankrupt, leaving many of their wells undocumented, leaking methane, and contaminating groundwater. These orphaned wells continue to pollute backyards, parks, and other public spaces; emit toxic chemicals; and harm wildlife. 

Such wells are located all over the country, including highly populated parts of New York and Pennsylvania, and even downtown Los Angeles. In most cases, nothing on the land surface indicates a well lies below the ground. In desert areas, such as Four Corners, orphaned wells can sometimes be identified by sight, but in places like the East Coast, many well sites are overgrown and cannot be identified without special techniques, which is where America’s national laboratories can help.

In January 2023, the United States Department of the Interior was allocated $4.7 billion to address the orphaned well problem. This led to the Department of Energy (DOE) receiving $40 million to advise on best practices for locating the wells. DOE, in collaboration with IOGCC, created a research consortium made up of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore,  Sandia, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. 

Hari Viswanathan, a scientist in the Energy and Natural Resources Security group at Los Alamos, leads the consortium. “Finding these wells is technically challenging,” Viswanathan says. “There is not one silver bullet that allows you to find them. We have to use multiple signatures and find cost- and time-effective strategies for collecting information and sorting through distracting or false data.”

Viswanathan says the five-lab consortium is taking a divide-and-conquer strategy. “The consortium’s job is to figure out the most efficient way to find these things.” One approach involves using fixed-wing drones, which carry multiple signature detectors to detect wells. Another strategy involves training artificial intelligence to extract information from handwritten historical records from the original drilling of the wells.

“Before we formed this consortium, people were using methane sensors, magnetometers, and aerial photography, but they were not working together,” Viswanathan says. “With this consortium we can combine resources.” Along with locating the wells, the group will determine which ones need mitigation. Not every abandoned well is leaking, and some are better off left alone, Viswanathan says.

Viswanathan says he is passionate about this project. “You can make large inroads on eliminating pollution and addressing the climate issue and have an impact,” he says. “We will come up with best practices on how to identify these orphaned wells and characterize their environmental risk so the issue can be fixed.” ★