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SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: February 25, 2021
SNIP: Jill Morrison has seen how the bust of oil and gas production can permanently scar a landscape.

Near her land in north-east Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where drilling started in 1889, more than 2,000 abandoned wells are seeping brine into the groundwater and leaking potent greenhouse gasses.

The problem is getting worse. As the oil and gas industry contracts owing to the pandemic, low prices and the rise of renewables, more than 50 major companies have gone bankrupt in the last year. Joe Biden’s recent order to pause drilling on federal land could drive that number higher. Morrison, a rancher and the head of the Powder River Basin resource council, said the crash was exacerbating the abandonment issue.

“They drill baby drilled themselves right out of business,” Morrison said. “We’re seeing something we’ve never seen before in the oil and gas industry, in terms of the downturn, and there’s going to be a billion-dollar mess to clean up.”

Unplugged wells, either orphaned well, which have no liable party, usually due to bankruptcy, or idle, abandoned ones, where the company has walked away, but could still be liable, cause rampant methane emissions – up to 8% of US total according to a 2014 analysis. They also leak brine, oil and fracking fluid into the groundwater, and carcinogenic gases, like benzine, into the air, and as their numbers increase the impacts grow.

“Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, it’s a precursor for ozone, and harmful for human health,” said Mary Kang, a McGill civil engineering professor who conducted the study. “Even just a few wells can be responsible for big emissions, and there are all the other associated risks, and impacts to wildlife and ecosystems.”

The impacts aren’t just here in the rangy fields of Wyoming. There are unremediated wells in Los Angeles neighborhoods and Pennsylvania farms. There could be as many as 3.2m abandoned wells in the US, according to a 2018 EPA report, but this is probably an undercount because both federal and state programs for regulating and monitoring non-producing wells are incomplete. There are an estimated 2,500 of them in the Powder River Basin alone.

So many have been left uncapped because the regulations and bonding requirements, the money that companies pay ahead of time as insurance, for those wells are so minimal that it’s nearly impossible to hold drillers responsible or to pay for cleanup. Some companies simply walk away from wells, meaning they are still liable; when firms go out of business, they are not.

The penalties for not cleaning up a well are minimal when there’s nothing but a small bond holding a company responsible. “How do you convince operators to comply when there’s no carrot and no stick?” said Frank Rusco, a director in the US Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment team.

That means the profits for drilling go to individual companies while the damages, both environmental and financial, are largely borne by the local community and by state and federal taxpayers. “Unplugged wells devalue property, they’re a mess to work around, it can lead to groundwater pollution, and no one is really tracking it,” Morrison said.

Cleanup for an individual well can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $1m. It involves filling it with clay or concrete, covering the surface, replacing topsoil, and removing any pipes or waste like fracking fluid.

Wyoming has 64,000 orphaned unplugged wells, which would cost an estimated $10bn to remediate, according to an October report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative. Even with the increased bonding requirements, as of the most recent tally the state had about $225m in bonds.