Editorial Feature

The Importance of Monitoring Orphan Wells

Orphan or abandoned wells pose significant environmental, health and safety risks to local areas, and fossil fuel extraction companies have historically not been proactive in monitoring them or mitigating these risks. Instead, public funding tends to be used to keep ecosystems safe from their harmful effects. Advanced sensing technologies and drones are being deployed to improve rates of orphan well monitoring, especially in North America.

Image Credit: J.J. Gouin/Shutterstock.com

What is the Orphan Well Problem?

Orphaned or abandoned wells are a result of fossil fuel extraction companies' neglect, transfer, profit-maximizing activities, or bankruptcy. They present a significant challenge for governments and landowners alike. With the growing focus on mitigating climate change and the resulting decrease in demand for fossil fuels, the abandonment of oil and gas wells as stranded assets is expected to increase.

The high cost of decommissioning these wells, often reaching millions of dollars, has driven companies to abandon them, leaving the task of monitoring them and mitigating environmental damage to the state or local landowners.

A recent Reuters investigation indicated that over 116,000 wells across 32 US states and four Canadian provinces were operated by bankrupt companies, indicating a high likelihood of future orphaned wells.

In the United States alone, there are over 4.7 million historic and active oil and gas wells, with 60% of these currently inactive and only a third properly decommissioned or plugged.

While the scope of the problem is well understood in the US and Canada, with public data and reporting available, other major oil and gas producers such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China lack accurate estimates. Nevertheless, the international estimate of abandoned wells stands at a staggering 29 million.

What Risks are Associated with Orphan Wells?

The issue of orphan wells cannot be overlooked when it comes to addressing climate change, as these wells are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane emissions from orphaned wells, caused by either leakage through plugs or inadequate plugging, are a major source of concern. A recent estimate revealed that abandoned wells in the US alone contribute greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to three weeks' worth of US oil consumption annually.

Orphan wells also pose a major threat to local ecosystems and public health, with the potential to contaminate land, air, and water in the surrounding areas. This could result in severe consequences for ecosystems, wildlife, crops, and human populations.

As an example, many abandoned wells in the US are located on farmland, and their neglect could result in toxic contaminants polluting critical sources of soil and groundwater, which in turn pollutes the nation’s food supply.

Drone and Sensor Technologies Can Monitor and Mitigate the Impact of Orphan Wells

With an increased focus on reducing negative impacts on the environment and local communities, orphan well programs have received a boost in funding and renewed success, aided by the use of drone technology.

Drones are being utilized in these programs to conduct aerial magnetic surveys, providing a more efficient means of identifying and cataloging abandoned and orphan wells. These surveys employ magnetometers, sensors capable of detecting metallic objects such as well casings buried beneath the Earth’s surface. Drones are flown in an optimized pattern over the targeted area, and the collected data is analyzed to identify any anomalies.

Professional surveyors then combine the aerial magnetic survey data with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping information to conduct ground investigations that precisely locate the source of the anomaly and confirm the presence of orphan wells. Remediation plans can then be developed, leading to more effective and timely well plugging and reclamation.

Who Funds Orphan Well Monitoring?

The drone system mentioned above is being implemented in North America, but the question of funding remains. At present, orphaned well monitoring and remediation initiatives are primarily funded by the government through public investment.

Abandoned well programs have been established for many years to assist in covering the costs of monitoring, plugging, and remediating abandoned oil and gas wells.

These programs are now poised to receive an influx of new funding, with the US Infrastructure Law setting out up to USD 4.7 billion in grants for federal and state programs to address the issue, bolstering often decades-old state-level orphan well programs.

This scenario highlights the necessity for the public to bear the costs of externalities resulting from economic activity, which were not borne by the companies and individuals who benefited from such activity.

What is the Future Outlook for Orphan Wells?

In North America, public investment in orphan well monitoring and plugging are going through a dramatic ramp-up period. This will result in many more abandoned oil and gas wells being identified, monitored, and plugged.

As well as significant public investment, cutting-edge technology is also beginning to contribute to efforts to fix the problem. Modern MEMS sensors are cheap to produce at scale and light and small enough to deploy on inexpensive drones. With modern connectivity and computer processing power, the data that these sensors gather can be analyzed efficiently to provide an accurate assessment of orphan well problems in specific regions.

This will result in many more orphan wells being monitored in North America in the near future, which in turn will result in greater mitigation of their harmful environmental impact.

This positive outlook relies on government funding, a situation that will continue for as long as the companies that profit from oil and gas extraction are able to abandon wells with no or minimal economic consequences.

It is also concerning that little information is available about the extent of orphan well problems in non-Western oil and gas producers such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China.

This problem is also (geo-)political in nature and outside the scope of this article. However, it can be hoped that continually reducing costs for orphan well monitoring driven by developments in sensor and drone technology will inspire more governments and fossil fuel extraction companies to act responsibly with regards to orphan wells in the future.

Continue reading:Using Sensors to Keep Coal Mines Safe

References and Further Reading

Allison, E., and B. Mandler (2018). What happens to oil and gas wells when they are no longer productive? [Online] American Geosciences Institute. Available at: https://www.americangeosciences.org/geoscience-currents/abandoned-wells 

Drone Technology Benefiting Orphan Wells Programs. [Online] Verdantas. Available at: http://www.verdantas.com/blog/orphan-wells-programs-benefitting-from-use-of-drones

Geller, D. (2020). More Exposures from Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Come Into Focus. [Online] Verisk. Available at: https://www.verisk.com/

Groom, N. (2020). Special Report: Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace. [Online] Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drilling-abandoned-specialreport-idUSKBN23N1NL 

Kang, M., et al (2021). Orphaned oil and gas well stimulus—Maximizing economic and environmental benefits. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2020.20.00161.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.

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