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Oil and gas wells comprise a considerable portion of the U.S.’s energy sources. However, many wells nationwide are inactive and a significant amount of this dormant infrastructure is unplugged. That may not seem like a concern initially — after all, these wells aren’t actively producing fossil fuels — but it’s a substantial threat.

Studies estimate hundreds of thousands of wells sit inactive and unplugged across the U.S. Roughly 14,000 are in offshore waters, inland waters or wetlands within the Gulf of Mexico, posing a massive environmental and financial risk.

Why Are Unplugged Wells a Threat?

Federal regulations require operators to plug oil and gas wells with cement when decommissioning them. However, many companies don’t — often a result of going bankrupt and being unable to afford the costs — leaving these “orphan” wells to threaten the environment and the economy.

Environmental Risks

Even when oil and gas wells are technically inactive, they still contaminate the surrounding environment. Methane emissions from this infrastructure equal 7.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, endangering the wildlife and people who live nearby.

Hydrocarbons leaking from these wells can pollute water sources. This pollution is more likely and more severe in the 14,000 offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico, as it occurs in shallower, more easily pollutable water near biodiverse regions. As these toxins leech into the water, they work their way up the food chain.

Humans aren’t immune to these environmental risks. In addition to these greenhouse gases’ impact on climate change, unplugged wells have adverse health effects on nearby populations. Ground-level ozone leads to increased hospital visits and premature deaths from lung-related conditions.

Financial Risks

The thousands of unplugged wells in the Gulf and beyond also take an economic toll. Ironically, many orphan wells stem from financial issues. Oil and gas wells are expensive to maintain, parts can take 16 to 18 months to deliver, and plugging inactive infrastructure is likewise pricey. However, leaving them unplugged has far broader economic implications.

Not plugging decommissioned wells shifts the burden of remediation to taxpayers, as government agencies must take over. Taxpayers must also pay for cleaning up the resulting environmental damage. Increased hospitalizations, less productive farmland and contaminated water supplies all take money to address.

Communities near orphan wells may experience other financial issues, too. Building development tends to drop in areas with many abandoned wells, hindering the local economy.

Addressing America’s Unplugged Wells

Energy companies, infrastructure businesses and government agencies must work together to address this issue. Plugging orphan wells won’t be an easy task, but it’s a necessary one.

Finding and Prioritizing Unplugged Wells

The first challenge in plugging orphan wells is finding them. Government agencies keep records of unplugged wells, but many older ones have little to no official documentation. Energy companies must review their historical documents, and agencies should work with local communities to find and record these wells.

Plugging wells and cleaning up the surrounding damage can also be expensive, but not every well is equally hazardous. The best way forward is to prioritize fixing the riskiest infrastructure first. The 14,000 offshore wells in the Gulf are an excellent place to start, as they pose the highest environmental risks.

Securing Funding

Businesses looking to plug orphan wells can offset some costs by capitalizing on government funding opportunities. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $4.68 billion to federal and state initiatives to reclaim oil and gas wells. Many states have their own funding programs, too.

Government funding may only cover some of the cost of plugging and cleaning each well, but it covers much of the expenses. This lightened financial burden can encourage further engagement in remediation projects. As more organizations get involved in these programs, they’ll minimize the economic fallout of unplugged wells, too.

Preventing Future Orphan Well Crises

Finally, businesses and government bodies should work together to prevent similar situations. As the shift to clean energy reduces demand for oil and gas wells, more infrastructure will require plugging. Tighter regulations around documentation and plugging timelines will prevent these wells from becoming orphaned in the future.

Companies can make plugging future wells more affordable by embracing money-saving sustainable infrastructure today. Renewable energy systems like solar power can reduce ongoing expenses by minimizing power bills, leaving businesses with more to spend on well plugging. Recognizing early remediation costs less than fixing future issues is important, too.

Unplugged Wells Are a Crucial But Overlooked Threat

Unplugged oil and gas wells may not come to mind when you think of the world's environmental issues. However, despite the relative lack of publicity, these orphan wells substantially threaten local ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Finding, plugging and preventing orphan wells will take an extensive, coordinated effort. If businesses and governments can work together, they can address this issue before its effects grow too large. Doing so will result in economic and environmental savings.

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