DOGGR

Literally Millions of Failing, Abandoned Wells

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

In California’s Central Valley and along the South Coast, there are many communities littered with abandoned oil and gas wells, buried underground.

Many have had homes, buildings, or public parks built over top of them. Some of them were never plugged, and many of those that were plugged have since failed and are leaking oil, natural gas, and toxic formation waters (water from the geologic layer being tapped for oil and gas). Yet this issue has been largely ignored. Oil and gas wells continue to be permitted without consideration for failing and failed plugged wells. When leaking wells are found, often nothing is done to fix the issue.

As a result, greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere and present an explosion risk for homes built over top of them. Groundwater, including sources of drinking water, is known to be impacted by abandoned wells in California, yet resources are not being used to track groundwater contamination.

Abandoned wells: plugged and orphaned

The term “abandoned” typically refers to wells that have been taken out of production. At the end of their lifetime, wells may be properly abandoned by operators such as Chevron and Shell or they may be orphaned.

When operators properly abandon wells, they plug them with cement to prevent oil, natural gas, and salty, toxic formation brine from escaping the geological formation that was tapped for production. Properly plugging a well helps prevent groundwater contamination and further air quality degradation from the well. The well-site at the surface may also be regraded to an ecological environment similar to its original state.

Wells that are improperly abandoned are either plugged incorrectly or are “orphaned” by their operators. When wells are orphaned, the financial liability for plugging the well and the environmental cleanup falls on the state, and therefore, the taxpayers.

You don’t see them?

In California’s Central Valley and South Coast abandoned wells are everywhere. Below churches, schools, homes, they even under the sidewalks in downtown Los Angeles!

FracTracker Alliance and Earthworks recently spent time in Los Angeles with an infrared camera that shows methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. We visited several active neighborhood drilling sites and filmed plumes of toxic and carcinogenic VOCs floating over the walls of well-pads and into the surrounding neighborhoods. We also visited sites where abandoned, plugged wells had failed.

In the video below, we are standing on Wilshire Blvd in LA’s Miracle Mile District. An undocumented abandoned well under the sidewalk leaks toxic and carcinogenic VOCs through the cracks in the pavement as mothers push their children in walkers through the plume. This is just one case of many that the state is not able to address.

California regulatory data shows that there are 122,466 plugged wells in the state, as shown below in the map below. Determining how many of them are orphaned or improperly plugged is difficult, but we can come up with an estimate based on the wells’ ages.

While there are no available data on the dates that wells were plugged, there are data on “spud dates,” the date when operators begin drilling into the ground. Of the 18,000 wells listing spud dates, about 70% were drilled prior to 1980. Wells drilled before 1980 have a higher risk of well casing failures and are more likely to be sources of groundwater contamination.

Additionally, wells plugged prior to 1953 are not considered effective, even by industry standards. Prior to 1950, wells either were orphaned or plugged and abandoned with very little cement. Plugging was focused on protecting the oil reservoirs from rain infiltration rather than to “confine oil, gas and water in the strata in which they are found and prevent them from escaping into other strata.” Of the wells with drilling dates in the regulatory data, 30% are listed as having been drilled prior to the use of cement in well plugging.

With a total of over 245,000 wells in the state database, and considering the lack of monitoring prior to 1950, it’s reasonable to assume there are over 80,000 improperly plugged and unplugged wells in California.

Map of California’s Plugged Wells

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

The regions with the highest counts of plugged wells are the Central Valley and the South Coast. The top 10 county ranks are listed below in Table 1. Kern County has more than half of the total plugged wells in the entire state.

Table 1. Ranks of Counties by Plugged Well Counts
  • Rank
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • County
  • Kern
  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • Fresno
  • Ventura
  • Santa Barbara
  • Monterey
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Solano
  • Yolo
  • Plugged Well Count
  • 65,733
  • 17,139
  • 7,259
  • 6,970
  • 4,302
  • 4,192
  • 2,266
  • 1,463
  • 1,456
  • 1,383

The issue is not unique to California. Nationally, an estimated 2.56 million oil and gas wells have been drilled and 1.93 million wells had been abandoned by 1975. Using interpolated data, the EPA estimates that as of 2016 there were 3.12 million abandoned wells in the U.S. and 69% of them were left unplugged.

In 2017, FracTracker Alliance organized an exercise to track down the locations of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells that are not included in the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s digital records. Using paper maps and the FracTracker Mobile App, volunteers explored Pennsylvania woodlands in search of these hidden greenhouse gas emitters.

What are the risks?

Emissions

Studies by Kang et al. 2014, Kang et al 2016, Boothroyd et al 2016, and Townsend-Small et al. 2016 have all measured methane emissions from abandoned wells. Both properly plugged and improperly abandoned wells have been shown to leak methane and other VOCs to the atmosphere as well as into the surrounding groundwater, soil, and surface waters. Leaks were shown to begin just 10 years after operators plugged the wells.

Well density

The high density of aging and improperly plugged wells is a major risk factor for the current and future development of California’s oil and gas fields. When fields with old wells are reworked using new technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, CO2 flooding, or solvent flooding (including acidizing, water flooding, or steam flooding), the injection of additional fluid and gas increases pressure in a reservoir. Poorly plugged or aging wells often lack the integrity to avoid a blowout (the uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas from a well). There is a consistent risk that formation fluids will be forced to migrate up the plugged wellbores and bypass the existing plugs.

Groundwater

In a 2014 report, the U.S. Geological Service warned the California State Water Resources Control Board that the integrity of abandoned wells is a serious threat to groundwater sources, stating, “Even a small percentage of compromised well bores could correspond to a large number of transport pathways.”

The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) has also suggested the need for additional research on existing aquifer contamination. In 2014, they called for widespread testing of groundwater near oil and gas fields, which has still not occurred.

Leaks

In addition to the contamination of underground sources of drinking water, abandoned well failures can even create a pathway for methane and fluids to escape to Earth’s surface. In many cases, such as in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California, where drilling began prior to the turn of the 20th century, many wells have been left unplugged. Of the abandoned wells that were plugged, the plugging process was much less adequate than it is today.

If plugged wells are allowed to leak, surface expressions can form. These leaks can travel to the Earth’s crust where oil, gas, and formation waters saturate the topsoil. A construction supervisor for Chevron named David Taylor was killed by such an event in the Midway-Sunset oil field near Bakersfield, CA. According to the LA Times, Chevron had been trying to control the pressure at the well-site. The company had stopped injections near the well, but neighboring operators continued high-pressure injections into the pool. As a result, migration pathways along old wells allowed formation fluids to saturate the Earth just under the well-site. Tragically, Taylor fell into a 10-foot diameter crater of 190° fluid and hydrogen sulfide.

California regulations

Following David Taylor’s death in 2011, California regulators vowed to make urgent reforms to the management of underground injection, and new rules finally went into effect on April 1, 2018. These regulations require more consistent monitoring of pressure and set maximum pressure standards. While this will help with the management of enhanced oil recovery operations, such as steam and water flooding and wastewater disposal, the issue of abandoned wells is not being addressed.

New requirements incentivizing operators to plug and abandon idle wells will help to reduce the number of orphan wells left to the state, but nothing has been done or is proposed to manage the risk of existing orphaned wells.

Conclusion

Why would the state of California allow new oil and gas drilling when the industry refuses to address the existing messes? Why are these messes the responsibility of private landholders and the state when operators declare bankruptcy?

New bonding rules in some states have incentivized larger operators to plug their own wells, but old low-producing or idle wells are often sold off to smaller operators or shell (not Shell) companies prior to plugging. This practice has been the main source of orphaned wells. And regardless of whether wells are plugged or not, research shows that even plugged wells release fugitive emissions that increase with the age of the plug.

If the fossil fuel industry were to plug the existing 1.666 million currently active wells, there would be nearly 5 million plugged wells that require regular inspections, maintenance, and for the majority, re-plugging, to prevent the flow of greenhouse gases. This is already unattainable, and drilling more wells adds to this climate disaster.

By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Wicked Witch of the Waste

The Great Plains has become the unconventional oil & gas industry’s dumping ground, prompting questions about the security and resilience of the bread basket and the underlying Ogalalla Aquifer

Back in December of 2016, FracTracker analyzed the growing link between injection wells that dispose fracking waste and “induced seismicity” [1], or human-caused earthquakes. Our compiled maps from this analysis (including Figure 1 below) show seismic activity in Kansas and Oklahoma along with Class II injection well volumes up through 2015. 

Figure 1. Earthquakes and Class II Injection Well Activity at the Kansas-Oklahoma Border

This link was given acute attention at that time as a result of the magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Pawnee, Oklahoma on September 3rd, 2016, followed closely by a 4.5 earthquake on November 1st.  The industry’s increased production of waste came home to roost 5 days later when a magnitude 5.0 quake struck a mile west of the “Cushing Hub,” the largest commercial crude oil storage center in North America. The Cushing Hub is capable of storing 54 million barrels of crude – the equivalent of 2.8 times the U.S. daily oil refinery capacity and 3.1 times the daily oil refinery capacity of all of North America.

Sunflower State of Affairs

Since we published this analysis and associated maps, Class II injection wells have been in the news several times across the Great Plains. An investigation by KSN News found that the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) improperly permitted over 2,000 Class II injection wells. The KCC stated that public comment periods for well proposals lasted just 15 days, instead of the correct number of 30 days. This amounts to 42% and 28% of the state’s active and total inventory of oil and gas waste receiving wells approved with inaccurate public notices.


Quail Oil & Gas LC’s Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) well, Morris County,
KS near Diamond Creek (Photo Courtesy of Karla jo Grimmett at South 500 photography)

According to Cindy Hoedel, a freelance journalist in Kansas, the KCC responded to the investigation findings… by ruling that no remedy was needed and closing the docket.”

Attorneys representing the Sierra Club maintain that improper permitting by the KCC continued into the Fall of 2018:

“The significance is they are choking us off in terms of giving us less and less time to try to mount a protest, to submit any kind of comment, and that’s a lot,” Cindy Hoedel, a Matfield Green resident who has complained about earthquakes in her area, said… “These notices get published in these tiny little newspapers, and sometimes it might take us 15 days before we find it”

As Ms. Hoedel wrote in an email when I asked her to comment on issues relating to Kansas’ Class II injection wells:

“The Republican controlled Kansas Legislature is trying to fend off several proposed bills that would reform the KCC (the regulatory body that oversees the permitting of Class II underground injection control wells). Citizen challenges of individual applications for disposal and EOR [enhanced oil recovery] wells continue, with the KCC moving more aggressively than in the past to dismiss protestants before a hearing is held. Some of these dismissals are being challenged in appellate court. The activists’ view is that EPA, the SWDA [Safe Water Drinking Act] and Congress clearly intend for the public to be able to participate in the regulatory process; instead, KCC has written regulations that are effectively barriers to participation… Activists have questions about the large number of EOR wells being applied for in Kansas and what their true purpose is, given the insignificant amounts of oil being produced compared to high volumes of injected fluids. Another concern is that the injection well earthquakes in Oklahoma and Kansas continue, yet KCC refuses to add regs that would address seismic risk in permit applications. There is also a problem with harassment of citizens exercising their right to protest – Scott Yeargain and I were both turned in to the Kansas AG’s office by a KCC staffer on the bogus claim that we were practicing law without a license because we helped explain the convoluted process to other protesters.”

Grapes of Wrath

Meanwhile, across the border, Oklahoma City and its surrounding suburbs have become the San Francisco of the Great Plains, with regular earthquake swarms (including many that exceed magnitude 4.0). According to Think Progress reporter Samantha Page, despite the damages and lawsuits caused by these earthquakes, “for years, the state was slow to respond, while Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and others questioned the link to human activity.” 

Eventually, by the end of 2016, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission responded by implementing a ‘traffic light’ protocol, in which operations are paused or stopped altogether following earthquakes of certain magnitudes. For a time, the EPA demanded a moratorium on disposal across Class II wells injecting into the Arbuckle formation in “high seismically active focus areas.”

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said that this response by the EPA is “a stellar example of the inefficiency of the federal government…It’s akin to a newspaper telling us today the football scores from games played 15 months ago.”

In reporting on the industry’s response, journalist Paul Monies, buried the lead when he pointed out the following in his second to last paragraph:

“Wastewater recycling remains an expensive option compared to the low costs of disposal wells in Oklahoma. While operators can inject wastewater into formations other than the Arbuckle, Hatfield said other formations don’t accept water as easily and are at shallower depths.”

The Map

Our second stab at mapping the scale and scope of Class II injection wells across the Great Plains is slightly different than our first effort in a few ways:

  1. This iteration includes Class II Salt Water Disposal (SWD) Injection Wells in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Kansas on one map. Clicking on a well reveals its location, well name, operator, and the volume of wastewater disposed. Volumes are presented annually for Nebraska and monthly for 2011 to 2017 for Oklahoma and Kansas. We also present annual sums for Oklahoma from 2006 to 2010.
  2. The map shows Arkansas and Platte River Basin boundaries, which contain the entire inventory of OK, NE, and KS Class II wells.
  3. We’ve included Hydrologic Unit Codes, which when zoomed in to the map, identify sub-watersheds, and the Ogalalla Aquifer boundary, courtesy of the USGS’s Sharon Qi.
  4. Finally, we’ve includedUS Forest Service Robert G. Bailey’s Ecoregions to give a sense for the types of ecosystems threatened by the O&G industry’s demand for suitable waste disposal sites

View Map Full Screen | To view the legend on this map, click the “layers” icon on the top left of the screen


Table 1, below, breaks down the volumes of oil and gas wastewater disposed in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Volumes are measured in million barrels, with one barrel equivalent to 42 gallons. The number of Class II SWD (salt water disposal) injection wells in these states is separated to show the total number of wells permitted verse the number of wells that were active (receiving waste).

Table 1. Class II injection well volumes in 2017

In total, 3,385,700,000 barrels of wastewater were disposed in 5,975 injection wells in these three states in 2017. The volume of wastewater disposed has increased in recent years (Table 2).

Table 2. Cumulative Class II injection well volumes to 2017, annual percent changes, and likely 2018 and 2027 volumes

In Table 2, the theoretical annual volumes for 2018 and 2027 are predictions based on the average of linear, exponential, and polynomial models.

The Kansas-Oklahoma Border

It is critical that we analyze the Great Plains fracking waste ecosystem across state lines. There are several reasons for this, including the proximity of Kansas’ most active Class II wells to the Oklahoma border (Figure 2) and the potential for the KCC to use enhanced oil recovery wells in Kansas to dispose of Oklahoma’s fracking waste.

Figure 2. Class II injection well volumes for 2017 along the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

Collaboration between front line communities, non-profits like FracTracker Alliance, and groups like the Kansas Water Advocacy Team (WAT) will be crucial to understanding the impacts of waste disposal writ large.  It seems like the “food vs energy” nexus has come to a head in the heart of the U.S. Bread Basket. We’ll continue to highlight and map the issues associated with this topic in the coming months and years.

Data Download Links

The following links contain the data used in the above tables and map, for use in excel and with Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

[1] To learn more about Induced Seismicity, read an exclusive FracTracker two-part series from former researcher with Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences, Ariel Conn: Part I and Part II.

Additionally, the USGS has created an Induced Earthquakes landing page as part of their Earthquake Hazards Program.