Researchers at New Mexico’s two national Laboratories are working to identify and study abandoned oil and gas wells throughout the state, aiming to devise the full environmental impact of the wells and the cost of cleanup.
Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories were part of a consortium of federal agencies and national laboratories funded by about $30 million included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Joe Biden.
The group also included the U.S. Department of Energy, Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, Department of Interior and Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkley national laboratories.
The study will endeavor to find undocumented wells in New Mexico and other oil-producing states, and study the extent of their impacts, focusing on methane emissions.
Scientists will use drones carrying sensors to fly over abandoned wells, known as “orphaned” in industry terms when a company deems them financially unviable.
When a well is orphaned, it becomes unmonitored and research shows it can leak air and groundwater pollutants into the environment.
In New Mexico companies typically take out bonds when a well is drilled to pay for such work should it be abandoned, but that funding is often inadequate to pay for plugging the well and restoring the landscape.
The federal funds will be used to develop new technologies to locate the wells, study the rate of methane emissions and other impacts.
Data developed will be used to prioritize wells for remediation.
It’s part of the Biden administration’s goal of reducing methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2020 levels, read an announcement from Los Alamos, and will be conducted over the next five years.
Hari Viswanathan, a scientist at Los Alamos leading the project said it could overcome challenges of finding and fixing the abandoned wells as they were often drilled and orphaned before regulations that require documentation were put in place.
“These long-abandoned, orphaned oil and natural gas wells are scattered across the United States, and it can be very hard to determine their locations, because they were drilled before regulatory laws were enacted,” he said.
Undocumented, abandoned wells frequently have no owner on record, he said, and the researchers will focus on remediation to cease any ongoing environmental impacts.
“An undocumented orphaned well is one that was never documented on public maps and records and has been abandoned by its legal owners, who no longer claim responsibility for it,” he said.
“Information about its ownership and construction have been lost. The goal is to document them so they can be remediated and plugged.”
Recent research from the Environmental Defense Fund found abandoned wells spread out in New Mexico’s southeast Permian Basin and northwest San Juan Basin regions.
The study located 622 documented wells, although the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (OCD), the state’s main oil and gas regulatory agency, estimated there could be as many as 1,700 orphaned wells in New Mexico.
They can cost up to $70,000 to plug and remediate, costs that can climb into millions of dollars based on the specific conditions of the job sites.
If left abandoned, the wells can pose risks to local communities – often rural, remote areas heavily populated by people of color and low-income families, per the report.
Southeast New Mexico counties had the most orphaned wells of any region in the state, the report read, lead by Chaves County at 347 abandoned wells, followed by 102 in Lea County and 57 in Eddy County.
Rio Arriba and San Juan counties to the northwest had 41 and 40 abandoned wells, respectively, research showed.
“When a well is left unplugged, it can leak oil and other toxic chemicals, endanger water wells and other sources, contribute to air pollution and emit methane – a powerful greenhouse gas,” the report read.
“Orphan wells also dramatically impact local communities and economies by threatening the health and well-being of residents and decreasing property values – which lowers funding for local schools, police departments, and other public services.”
The State of New Mexico expected to receive about $25 million for the work itself in an initial round of federal funds from the infrastructure bill, and OCD Director Adrienne Sandoval said another $74 million in grants could be available.
She said more funding could continue to be needed in the coming years as more wells could become abandoned amid the up and down swings that characterize the fossil fuel market and subsequent production.
“There is the potential that more wells will be orphaned,” Sandoval said. “We do try to take proactive measures to prevent that, but unfortunately, operators become insolvent and leave their assets for the state to manage.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.