Oil and gas vets want to clean up the industry’s mess, one well at a time

There were more than 50,000 wells on state cleanup lists across the country in 2018, and states estimated there were somewhere between 200,000 to 750,000 more abandoned wells that weren’t in their records. If you include wells that are “idle,” meaning they may still have an owner but haven’t produced any oil or gas in years — and are at risk of getting thrust into state hands if their owners go bankrupt — the count reaches around 2.1 million, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

When wells are left unsealed, they can become pathways for oil, gas, or briny water to migrate into groundwater and soil. The equipment is a hazard for wildlife, livestock, and unsuspecting humans. But increasing attention is being paid to another risk — an unknown number of unplugged wells leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 86 times more effective at heating up the planet than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere. At high enough concentrations, methane carries a risk of explosion, and it’s often accompanied by other chemicals that are dangerous to human health, like benzene, a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and low birth weights.

Money is at the heart of the abandoned wells problem. The number of wells has already ballooned far beyond what state budgets and manpower can handle, and experts say it’s on the verge of multiplying.

Nonprofits, founded by oil and gas industry insiders, have formed in recent years with a mission of raising funds to plug derelict oil and gas wells.

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