Cleaning Up Abandoned Wells Proves Costly To Gas And Oil Producing States Abandoned gas and oil wells dot many states. These orphaned sites need to be capped and cleaned up, but doing so is difficult when the responsible companies have gone bankrupt.
NPR logo

Cleaning Up Abandoned Wells Proves Costly To Gas And Oil Producing States

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/758284873/758426824" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Cleaning Up Abandoned Wells Proves Costly To Gas And Oil Producing States

Cleaning Up Abandoned Wells Proves Costly To Gas And Oil Producing States

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/758284873/758426824" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To another story now. As the Trump administration rolls back regulations to boost the oil and gas industry, more states are grappling with a growing backlog of abandoned wells. The EPA estimates there may be more than a million of them across the country. Reporter Matt Bloom with member station KUNC in Colorado reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: Plugging just one of these wells can take more than a week, and that's not counting the months of paperwork that needs to be done leading up to the actual job. By the time it's over, it can cost upwards of $80,000.

MIKE HICKEY: And this is an awesome vantage point.

BLOOM: Mike Hickey is an engineer with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. He's overseeing a plugging northeast of Denver. On the surface, the well looks small, just a couple feet of dirty pipe jutting out of the ground. But it's about a mile-deep underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

BLOOM: The seven-man crew starts by yanking long sections of the pipe out one by one. With this well, Hickey says they're kind of playing it by ear.

HICKEY: We never operated these wells. So we are not completely sure what's in 'em until we start pulling it out.

BLOOM: There are a lot of ways wells get abandoned, or orphaned, in industry lingo. Some companies go bankrupt. In this case, the owner got sick about three years ago, racked up violations and lost his drilling rights. It then became the state's responsibility to plug it so it doesn't leak. Similar scenarios have been happening so often in Colorado, last year, the state legislature approved a tenfold increase in funding for orphaned well cleanup. States like Alabama and Ohio have followed suit, as did Pennsylvania, where it's estimated there could be up to 560,000 abandoned wells.

JILL MORRISON: Every state that has oil and gas has this problem because the industry has not been held accountable by the regulators and by the government to pay the cost of doing business.

BLOOM: Jill Morrison heads the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental group in Wyoming. That state beefed up funding for its program five years ago after a coal bed methane bust. Morrison worries another bust could put its budget over the edge.

MORRISON: We're going to quickly be in the tens of millions of dollars responsible for plugging and reclaiming oil and gas wells if we don't require upfront bonding.

BLOOM: That means making companies pay the full cost of capping wells even before they start drilling. But the industry pushes back on that idea. Lynn Granger is with the American Petroleum Institute, a national trade group.

LYNN GRANGER: For the most part, our operators are very responsible. They are taking care of their wells, and that is not left to the state.

BLOOM: Granger points out, for example, that in Colorado, less than 1% of all oil and gas wells are abandoned. But that doesn't mean the state isn't concerned about them. In fact, the opposite is true. Colorado has set a deadline of 2023 to get the highest-risk ones plugged.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

BLOOM: That includes that well northeast of Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

BLOOM: Also, they're lifting what looks like the last...

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

BLOOM: ...Bit of the well out of the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELL WORKSITE AMBIANCE)

BLOOM: Mike Hickey's crew uses explosives to crack the rock around the well and then pours in concrete to seal it shut, nearly a week after starting the whole process.

HICKEY: And then we cut it off 4 feet down, weld a cap on it, put identifying information on that cap, bury it and sweep the floor.

BLOOM: He says his crew is working as hard as it can to meet the state's 2023 deadline.

HICKEY: We just - we got to get them cleaned up. They're not supposed to be this way. They're contrary to our rules. And it's our job to fix them.

BLOOM: But progress is slow. They have more than 250 of those high-risk wells to cap. And in the last year, they've only plugged 10. It's still unclear if they'll finish the job in time.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Adams County, Colo.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.