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The Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Oozing Methane Into U.S. Air

This article is published in collaboration with Statista

by Katharina Buchholz

Methane is an invisible and odorless gas that is quietly oozing from abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States and affects the climate in a major way. Compared with CO2, methane is much more harmful in furthering climate change. It has 25-80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in addition to acting faster.

The reduction of methane emissions can therefore be a way to counteract climate change in the short term. The United States government is trying to get ahead of the problem by sending $1.15 billion to 26 states to plug leaky abandoned oil and gas extraction sites. Together with future application rounds, the total sum from the bipartisan physical infrastructure deal for the project is $4.7 billion. The U.S. government, together with 100 other nations, pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent until the year 2030 at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year.

Estimations on how many abandoned wells exist in the country differ. The EPA has one of the highest estimates – more than three million. Since 1990, which is how far EPA records go back, efforts to plug orphan wells and make sure companies are liable to do the same when abandoning work sites have progressed. A higher share of abandoned wells in the U.S. is plugged today than it was 30 years ago. However, as the industry is booming and more abandoned wells are added to the inventory, the absolute number of unplugged abandoned wells - and in extension the amount of climate gases they emit - has stayed the same. In 1990, there were approximately 286,000 orphaned gas wells and 1.7 million orphaned oil wells that were unplugged. In 2019, there were 382,000 and 1.6 million, respectively.

Therefore, despite ongoing efforts, the negative track record of the wells has not improved majorly, instead stagnating in the past three decades. This is despite the fact that plugging all of these wells would have the same impact as getting 1.4 million cars off the road or adding 17 million trees to the country, according to the California Air Resources Board.

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