Skip to main content

Management of Abandoned and Orphaned Wells

When a well is no longer in use, it must be properly closed and sealed to prevent impacts to water and air quality. Done correctly, wells are sealed with cement and multiple metal barriers to prevent fluid or gas from escaping and to keep people or animals from falling into the well. Once a well has been closed according to safety standards, it is considered abandoned and continues to be monitored to ensure it remains sealed.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as of 2016 there were an estimated 3.2 million inactive oil and gas wells in the United States, of these 69 percent – more than 2 million – are considered unplugged or remain improperly closed [1].

Wells that are not properly closed and sealed are referred to as “orphan” wells. Operators may leave wells unsealed, fail to create an impenetrable cement seal when closing a well, or the cement and casing may erode over time. Older wells once considered closed may still present a risk as historical practices do not meet today’s industry standards. Orphaned or improperly closed wells can emit large volumes of oil, other fluids or natural gas, including methane, that pose a risk to the environment and the health of neighboring communities and contribute to climate change.

Recent volatility in the oil and gas industry and bankruptcies have brought increased attention to the issue of orphaned wells. When wells are orphaned by their operators, state regulatory agencies assume responsibility for the cost of locating these wells and properly plugging and monitoring them. Sharing best practices and scientific evidence regarding orphaned wells can help states more efficiently manage this process to prevent costly, dangerous incidents.

Additional Resources

Orphan Well Association: FAQs

Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission: Report on Idle and Orphan Oil Wells

Government Accountability Office: BLM Needs a Comprehensive Strategy to Better
Manage Potential Oil and Gas Well Liability (2011)

Government Accountability Office: Bureau of Land Management Needs to Improve Its Data and Oversight of Its Potential Liabilities (2018)

California Council on Science & Technology: Orphan Wells in California

References

1. “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2016: Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells,” Environmental Protection Agency, 2018. [Online]. Available: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-04/documents/ghgemissions_abandoned_wells.pdf

Office of Public Programs | Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Internet Voting Remains Insecure, Says AAAS EPI Center

Office of Public Programs | Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Green Stormwater Infrastructure Helps Curb Effects of Climate Change in Cities

Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Deploying Data-Driven Green Stormwater Infrastructure Programs

Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

EPI Center letter to members of the Ohio House of Representatives regarding internet voting

Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Video: The Risks of Internet Voting in the Puerto Rico Electoral Code of 2020

Office of Public Programs | Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Summit Briefs Policy-makers on Drinking Water Safety

Office of Public Programs | Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues | COVID-19 Resources
AAAS News

Top State Officials Urged to Bar Security-Flawed Internet Voting Platforms

Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues | COVID-19 Resources
AAAS News

Scientific Experts Call on Elected Officials to Avoid Any Internet Voting

Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues
AAAS News

Bringing Scientific Evidence to Meet Local Policy Challenges, a Town Hall at the AAAS Annual Meeting