Around the world, there are 30 million vulnerable abandoned petroleum wells.
Methane gas is a primary greenhouse gas far more destructive than carbon dioxide.
There are no regulations requiring companies to care for mines they informally sunset.
Bloomberg Green reports that millions of methane wells around the world continue to seep methane gas for decades after the end of their working lives. Methane—the colorless, odorless, highly flammable primary component of natural gas—accounts for about 10 percent of all human-driven greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. But why would business owners decide to spend money to plug wells when they’re not required to?
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There are 32 million abandoned petrochemical wells around the world. Many aren’t technically abandoned, Bloomberg reports, but rather, put on hold so owners can revive them in the future, like when oil prices are more favorable to the industry. Right now, very few people are buying gas or oil at any level because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But like a half-finished woodworking or knitting project stowed in a storage unit, these idled wells are effectively retired.
Using idleness and the remote possibility of reactivation lets owners avoid any environmental obligations. And when those owner companies fully go out of business, the wells they’ve chosen not to maintain enter, basically, the public interest. As portions of the petrochemical industry fold, Bloomberg explains, “the wells it orphans will become wards of the state.”
The main well the Bloomberg piece follows is the Church well, placed near Rio Vista, California by the Hess Corporation and owned by (and named for) mineral-rights retainer Bernard Church. Since the 1980s, when Hess sold the well to the first of a series of subsequent owners, no one has had to care for the degrading well.
“There’s no regulatory requirement to monitor methane emissions from inactive wells, and until recently, scientists didn’t even consider wells in their estimates of greenhouse gas emissions,” Bloomberg explains.
And without maintenance, these wells are just human-made holes in the Earth—aging and corrosion is the same as for any concrete and steel backyard swimming pool or local bridge. Bloomberg explains:
“In Church’s case, the outer straw is 7.625 inches in diameter and made of steel, encased in cement; inside is a 2.375-inch-wide steel tube. The deeper the well, the more the heat and pressure rise. At Church’s deepest point, 10,968 feet, the temperature likely exceeds 200F. The weight of the Earth exerts more and more pressure as the well goes deeper—reaching about 5 tons per square inch at the bottom. That’s the equivalent of four 2,500-pound cars on your thumb. All of this puts a huge amount of stress on that underground infrastructure. As it breaks down, eventually it begins to leak.”
You might have heard the story of the abandoned coal mine in Centralia, Pennsylvania, where a fire broke out in 1962 that's been burning underground ever since. Thanks to abundant coal reserves, the fire has plenty of fuel, and it can keep burning as long as oxygen is flowing in.
But the methane leakage was totally ignored until the last 10 years, when an intrepid Ph.D. student named Mary Kang found pat answers to simple questions.
“She looked for similar models on methane and came up with nothing; some of the industry sources she spoke with were confident that it wasn’t much—and that even if it was, technology existed that could fix it,” Bloomberg reports.
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