DATE: September 17, 2020
SNIP: The story of gas well No. 095-20708 begins on Nov. 10, 1984, when a drill bit broke the Earth’s surface 4 miles north of Rio Vista, Calif. Wells don’t have birthdays, so this was its “spud date.”
The drill chewed through the dirt at a rate of 80 ½ feet per hour, reaching 846 feet below ground that first day. By Thanksgiving it had gotten a mile down, finally stopping 49 days later, having laid 2.2 miles of steel pipe and cement on its way to the “pay zone,” an underground field containing millions of dollars’ worth of natural gas.
It was ready to start pumping two months later, in early January. While 1985 started out as a good year for gas, by its close, more than half the nation’s oil and gas wells had shut down. How much money the Amerada Hess Corp., which bankrolled the dig, managed to pump out of gas well No. 095-20708 before that bust isn’t known. By 1990 the company, now called simply Hess Corp., gave up and sold it. Over the next decade or so, four more companies would seek the riches promised at the bottom of the well, seemingly with little success. In 2001 a state inspector visited the site. “Looks like it’s dying,” he wrote.
Gas wells never really die, though. Over the years, the miles of steel piping and cement corrode, creating pathways for noxious gases to reach the surface. The most worrisome of these is methane, the main component of natural gas. If carbon dioxide is a bullet, methane is a bomb. Odorless and invisible, it captures 86 times more heat than CO₂ over two decades and at least 25 times more over a century. Drilling has released this potent greenhouse gas, once sequestered in the deep pockets and grooves of the Earth, into the atmosphere, where it’s wreaking more havoc than humans can keep up with.
Well No. 095-20708 is one of more than 3.2 million deserted oil and gas wells in the U.S. and one of an estimated 29 million globally, according to Reuters. There’s no regulatory requirement to monitor methane emissions from inactive wells, and until recently, scientists didn’t even consider wells in their estimates of greenhouse gas emissions. With the pandemic depressing demand for fossil fuels and renewable energy development booming, why should owners idle or plug their wells when they can simply walk away?
In the past five years, 207 oil and gas businesses have failed. As natural gas prices crater, the fiscal burden on states forced to plug wells could skyrocket; according to Rystad Energy AS, an industry analytics company, 190 more companies could file for bankruptcy by the end of 2022. Many oil and gas companies are idling their wells by capping them in the hope prices will rise again. But capping lasts only about two decades, and it does nothing to prevent tens of thousands of low-producing wells from becoming orphaned, meaning “there is no associated person or company with any financial connection to and responsibility for the well,” according to California’s Geologic Energy Management Division.
The life cycle of the Church well exemplifies this systemic indifference. Hess’s liability ended when it sold more than 30 years ago; the last company to acquire the lease, Pacific Petroleum Technology, which took over in 2003, managed to evade financial responsibility entirely as the well’s cement and steel piping began to corrode. Letters from state regulators demanding that the company declare its plans for the well went unanswered. In November 2007 the state issued a civil penalty of $500 over Pacific’s failures to file monthly production reports on the well. Instead of paying, Pacific requested a hearing, at which a representative testified that there was still $10 million worth of natural gas waiting to be pumped and promised the company would secure funds, make necessary repairs, and start producing again. The state was unconvinced and demanded Pacific plug the well. Another decade passed. The company never pumped a single cubic foot of gas and made no effort to plug the well.
If Church were the only neglected well, it would be inconsequential. But these artifacts of the fossil fuel age are ubiquitous, obscured in backyards and beneath office buildings, under parking lots and shopping malls, even near day-care centers and schools in populous cities such as Los Angeles, where at least 1,000 deserted wells lie unplugged. In Colorado an entire neighborhood was built on top of a former oil and gas field that had been left off of construction maps. In 2017 two people died in a fiery explosion while replacing a basement water heater.
The Earth’s interior has been unfathomably scarred by hydrocarbon infrastructure. For almost two centuries, since the drilling of the first gas well in 1821, the fossil fuel industry has treated the planet like a giant pincushion. The first U.S. gas well in Fredonia, N.Y., extended only 27 feet underground, but drilling since has gone ever deeper. Ten-thousand-foot wells like Church are common today.
Now imagine each of those pins in the global pincushion is a straw inside a straw. In Church’s case, the outer straw is 7.625 inches in diameter and made of steel, encased in cement; inside is a 2.375-inch-wide steel tube. The deeper the well, the more the heat and pressure rise. At Church’s deepest point, 10,968 feet, the temperature likely exceeds 200F. The weight of the Earth exerts more and more pressure as the well goes deeper—reaching about 5 tons per square inch at the bottom. That’s the equivalent of four 2,500-pound cars on your thumb. All of this puts a huge amount of stress on that underground infrastructure. As it breaks down, eventually it begins to leak.
Astonishingly, no one had even bothered to ask how much until the past decade. In 2011, Mary Kang was a Ph.D. student at Princeton modeling how CO₂ might escape from underground storage vessels after being captured and buried.
Kang went to Pennsylvania, where boom and bust cycles over the years have left a half-million gas wells deserted. Of the 19 she measured, three turned out to be high emitters, meaning they released three times more methane into the atmosphere than other wells in the sample. “There were no measurements of emissions coming out of these wells,” she says. “People knew these wells existed, they just thought what was coming out was negligible or zero.” By scaling up her findings, Kang was able to estimate that in 2011, deserted wells were responsible for somewhere from 4% to 7% of all man-made methane emissions from Pennsylvania.
Those findings inspired Lebel and other researchers in the U.S. and worldwide to start taking direct methane measurements. The industry responded by ignoring them and fought fiercely against the Obama administration’s efforts to start regulating methane emissions.
Meanwhile, scientists trudged on. So far researchers have measured emissions at almost 1,000 of the 3.2 million deserted wells in the U.S. In 2016, Kang published another study of 88 abandoned well sites in Pennsylvania, 90% of which leaked methane.
Internationally, researchers tracked increasingly bad news. German scientists discovered methane bubbles in the seabed around orphaned wells in the North Sea. Taking direct measurements of 43 wells, they found significant leaks in 28. In Alberta, researchers estimated methane leaks in almost 5% of the province’s 315,000 oil and gas wells. In the U.K., researchers found “fugitive emissions of methane” in 30% of 102 wells studied.
Despite the flurry of recent research, the full scale of the emissions problem remains unknown. “We really don’t have a handle on it yet,” says Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell who’s studied methane leaks from active oil and gas wells for decades. “We’ve poked millions of holes thousands of feet into Mother Earth to get her goods, and now we are expecting her to forgive us?”
There’s no easy way to bring up the thousands of feet of steel and cement required to carry gas out of a well as deep as A.H.C. Church 11. That means the only way to keep the well from leaking is to fill it up. Plugging a well costs $20,000 to $145,000, according to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For modern shale wells, the cost can run as high as $300,000.
The cost to plug just California’s deserted wells—an estimated 5,500—could reach $550 million, according to a report released earlier this year. While not an insignificant price tag, the real shock would come if the industry collapses and walks away for good. In that doomsday scenario, the costs to plug and decommission 107,000 active and idled wells could run to $9 billion. And yet so far in 2020, California has approved 1,679 new drilling permits.
“We make the same mistake over and over again,” says Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford who oversees Lebel’s work. “Companies go bankrupt, and taxpayers pay the bills.”
Even spending all the billions of dollars required to plug the world’s millions of deserted wells won’t stave off environmental catastrophe. The vast heat and pressure of the Earth’s subsurface—the same forces that crushed dinosaur bones into hydrocarbons in the first place—mean that no plugging job lasts forever. Scientists and engineers debate how long cement can survive in the harsh environment of the Earth’s interior. Estimates typically fall from 50 to 100 years, a long enough time horizon that even some of today’s biggest oil and gas companies may no longer exist, but short enough to be uncomfortably within the realm of human comprehension. No regulations require states or federal agencies to measure emissions after wells are plugged.