Hundreds of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells may be leaking toxic chemicals into the environment, and posing a serious health threat to humans, according to an investigation by the Associated Press (AP).
When oil and gas wells are no longer unable to produce, they are often plugged with cement to prevent the chemicals from leaking into the environment. However, a report published last week highlights how hundreds of thousands of wells may have been overlooked and never plugged, or may be leaking toxic chemicals into the surrounding areas even after they were plugged
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells exist in the United States. Only about one-third are plugged. In some cases, those wells still have oil or water byproducts in them, which could contaminate soil and water resources.
Recently, a ranch owner in Texas who has abandoned and plugged oil wells on her property found crude oil bubbling from a plugged well. Another well was seeping pools of “produced water,” which is a water byproduct of oil and gas drilling that contains toxic chemicals. Water ladled with toxic chemicals was seeping into the water table. The ranch owner could not use the water on her property and was afraid her cattle had been drinking it for some time.
Tests indicated the water had concentrations of benzene and methane. Chevron, which owned two of the wells, had to ship drinking water onto the property while crews tried to plug the leaks.
The owner recalled crude oil bubbling up in a toilet bowl at the ranch when she was a teenager. At the time they switched to another well, but never found the oil leak which presumably continued to seep into the earth.
A map of known Texas and Pennsylvania abandoned and plugged oil wells shows both states riddled with problematic oil wells which may be leaking toxic chemicals into the surrounding areas.
Unplugged, abandoned wells leaked 5,000 times more methane than plugged wells, according to data published by the EPA. The leaks contribute to the acceleration of global warming as well as contributing to human health side effects.
Critics say plugging leaky and abandoned wells is not happening fast enough to prevent harm to humans and the environment. Many of the wells are releasing methane and benzene into the ground water. Methane contains 86 times the climate-warming power of carbon dioxide and benzene is a known carcinogen.
Recently, abandoned, leaky wells were found on the Navajo Nation. In Colorado, a basement exploded, killing two men, after an abandoned flow line leaked methane. In Wyoming, a school was closed after air tests indicated high levels of benzene and carbon dioxide were exposing children.
Some states require oil companies to plug wells that are tapped out and to post bonds in case they go out of business, but the AP report indicates the bonds don’t fully cover the costs. In 2018, oil-producing states spent $45 million plugging orphaned wells.
President Joe Biden has called on a large expenditure, in the billions, to plug dangerous unplugged wells. However, such a proposal is seen as unlikely to pass the Senate.