AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This next story takes us beneath your feet. It's a story about land that now holds houses, schools and malls. Some of that land has been re-used. And beneath those new buildings are abandoned oil and gas wells. Some residents are surprised to learn this. And safety concerns make this more than just a matter of curiosity. Here's Stephanie Joyce with Wyoming Public Radio.
STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Jeff Parsek lives in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and suburban ranch homes on the south side of Fort Collins, Colo. So it came as news to Parsek that state records show there's an abandoned oil and gas well in his driveway.
JEFF PARSEK: Bought the house in 2004 and haven't had any concerns about oil wells or anything else.
JOYCE: Confronted with similar news, several homeowners responded with curses and slammed doors. One yelled, thanks for ruining my afternoon. But when I asked Parsek if the news worried him...
PARSEK: It really doesn't. If it started to emit something, then I might. But to this point, I'm not concerned.
JOYCE: The trouble is it might be hard to know if the well were emitting something. When a well stops producing commercial quantities of oil and gas, companies abandon it, usually by filling the well with cement to stop the flow of gas and fluids. The industry considers that the end of the life of a well.
MARK WATSON: It's not rocket science to plug these wells.
JOYCE: That's Mark Watson, Wyoming's oil and gas supervisor.
WATSON: It's a hole in the ground that's pretty deep. And, you know, you set cement. And cement lasts a long time.
JOYCE: That firm belief that once a well is plugged, it's dead, means there's no systematic monitoring for leaks. We simply don't know what percent of abandoned wells are leaking. But we do know that at least in a handful of cases, it's happened.
RICK KINDER: This lot was located off of Highway 12...
JOYCE: Back in 2007, Rick Kinder was working for a contractor building a house in southern Colorado. They had just finished sealing the house, putting in all the doors and windows, and Rick and a colleague were working in the crawl space hanging insulation.
KINDER: And we just heard this big roar, and then a big boom and it threw us against the walls. And it just blew the whole top of the roof off.
JOYCE: Rick and his colleagues didn't know it, but they were building on top of an abandoned gas well that was leaking methane, an odorless and highly explosive gas. No one was killed in the explosion. But the blast sent Rick into cardiac arrest. He ended up having a quadruple bypass.
KINDER: And I lost, probably, a third of my heart, the muscle.
JOYCE: Rick had worked in the oil and gas industry for nearly 30 years. If anyone were going to recognize an old well site, it would be him.
KINDER: There was no signs, no nothing there that would give us an indication that somebody had built there or had done some work.
JOYCE: Across the U.S., from Pennsylvania to Texas to California, there are millions of abandoned wells, their locations unmapped or poorly mapped. Rob Jackson is a researcher at Stanford University. He says keeping track of them is a low priority.
ROB JACKSON: When a state sees a well is plugged, they typically put a checkmark by that well in a database or in a file somewhere. And they don't do anything for the most part.
JOYCE: Unless a well starts leaking fluids or a house blows up, the assumption is that everything is fine. Jackson says it's partly an issue of states not having the resources to monitor.
JACKSON: But I also think the states aren't that interested in some cases - in many cases, in the data. I'm not sure that they really want to know.
JOYCE: In the Canadian province of Alberta, it's a different story. Theresa Watson is an engineering consultant and former Alberta energy regulator. Back in the early 2000s, she started pushing for better tracking, monitoring and regulation of abandoned wells as people started to move in to rural areas that were once oil and gas fields.
THERESA WATSON: If you don't measure it, you don't know what kind of risk you have. I mean, ignorance is bliss, I guess. But I think most people will tell you that they'd want to know.
JOYCE: Which is why Watson recommended not only monitoring abandoned wells near homes, but an outright prohibition on building on top of them.
WATSON: From a public safety perspective, even a slow leak into a building can cause an explosion hazard.
JOYCE: Alberta now has a 15-foot no-build zone around abandoned wells. But similar rules are lacking in most of the U.S. Even as we can see in places like the Front Range of Colorado, new development is encroaching on old oil and gas fields. State oil and gas regulators say the situation is out of their hands. Stuart Ellsworth is the engineering manager for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
STUART ELLSWORTH: We'd really try to discourage construction on top of old wells.
JOYCE: But he says any actual prohibition is up to local governments who permit development. In turn, many of those local governments see abandoned wells as the state's problem.
KINDER: Somebody needs to be held accountable for it.
JOYCE: That's Rick Kinder again, the construction worker who was injured in the well explosion.
KINDER: To me, the most important thing is it doesn't happen to somebody else. It doesn't need to happen to somebody else.
JOYCE: He says he doesn't care who ends up making rules about building on top of abandoned wells. He just wants somebody to do it. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce.
CHANG: That story came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.
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