The number of abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States is much higher than previously thought, according to an exclusive analysis shared with The Climate 202.

The analysis, which was done by the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University, found that there are 81,283 documented orphan wells across the country that were drilled and then improperly abandoned by oil and gas companiesThat’s nearly 1.5 times the previous estimate of roughly 56,000 wells from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a quasi-governmental organization.

Each orphan well is a major climate problem: It spews methane, a potent greenhouse gas. While methane breaks down in the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide, it’s about 86 times more powerful at warming the planet in the short term.
  • The analysis also found that about 9 million Americans live within one mile of an orphan well, including 4.3 million people of color and 550,000 children younger than 5 who are especially vulnerable to health problems tied to air pollution.
  • The findings come with a map showing the locations of orphan wells in all 50 states, including “hot spots” in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

“I think what you get out of this map is a sense of how big this problem is,” Adam Peltz, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund who worked on the analysis, told The Climate 202. “It’s a coast-to-coast problem. It’s a rural and urban problem.”

On the Hill

Legislation to address the problem was included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill being debated in Congress.

The “Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphaned Wells (REGROW) Act” from Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) would “require the Secretary of the Interior to establish a program to plug, remediate and reclaim orphaned oil and gas wells and surrounding land.”

  • The measure would also provide funding for state regulators and Native American tribes, which are often saddled with the cost of cleaning up orphan wells after the oil companies that drilled the wells go bankrupt.
  • “The REGROW Act is a critical step forward in cleaning up orphaned oil and gas wells, which can leak methane, contaminate groundwater and create community safety risks,” Luján said in a statement to The Climate 202. “New Mexico and so many states across the country need skilled energy workers back to work and focused on the primary goal of plugging every documented orphaned well in the country.”
  • Sen. Cramer said in a statement to The Climate 202 that the legislation is a “pro-jobs and pro-natural resources piece of legislation that would put unemployed oilfield workers back on the job where they can use their skillsets to prevent environmental hazards and make the land in their communities productive again.”

Still, the bipartisan infrastructure bill is being held up by progressives, who say there shouldn’t be a vote on the infrastructure measure until the passage of Democrats’ sweeping social spending package, which contains even more aggressive provisions to address climate change.

‘Scratching the surface’

Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University and another author of the analysis, emphasized that she and her co-authors only looked at documented orphan wells, meaning those that state oil and gas regulators have identified.