September 23, 2022

LANL-led consortium works to document orphaned wells

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

An abandoned pumpjack is seen in a field in Kirtland.

A consortium led by Los Alamos National Laboratory is using federal funding provided to find orphaned wells and help states prioritize plugging efforts.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $30 million to establish the consortium, which is tasked with developing technologies and best practices that will be used to locate undocumented orphaned wells, characterizing the construction of the wells determining how much methane they are emitting as well as looking at wellbore integrity and environmental impact. 

The consortium includes the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. 

LANL’s Hari Viswanathan is the lead scientist overseeing the multi-national-lab effort. 

“I think [orphaned wells are] a very impactful problem and it is sort of a grand challenge because there’s a lot of these wells out there and they’re pretty challenging to detect,” he said. “That actually requires leading edge science to do that.”

He said there are an estimated hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells nationwide and addressing them has bipartisan support.

“You don’t want these wells polluting people’s land,” he said. “You also don’t want the climate impacts of these wells.”

Orphaned wells are essentially wells that, for reasons like age and bankruptcy of the company that operated them, now have no owner of record. That leaves the burden of cleaning them up on state and federal agencies. 

Over the next five years, Viswanthan said the consortium will identify them, characterize them and come up with guidelines for the states.

He said there’s a list of documented wells and undocumented wells that are known to exist.

“We know that they’re out there, but we don’t know exactly where they are,” he said.

The goal is to move the well from the undocumented list to the documented list, which would then allow the states to spend money from the funds authorized through the Infrastructure Investment and Job Act to clean up the sites. The package set aside a total of $4.7 billion for plugging orphaned wells.

Viswanathan said the national labs have been advancing technologies to help find these wells.

One example is equipping a drone with inexpensive sensors that are able to take different types of measurements. He said the drone could then be flown over areas where orphaned wells could be located to pinpoint the location of the well.

These sensors could look at electromagnetic signatures or methane leak or the presence of metal that could be associated with an orphaned well.

If a well is emitting a lot of methane, it is generally easy to find, Viswanathan said. 

“The current industry already knows how to find the ones that are leaking a lot, but the issue is there are a bunch of other ones that may be leaking at lower amounts that are more difficult to find,” he said. “Those you could argue well, they’re not leaking as much and so maybe they’re not a problem.”

However, he said methane leaks could indicate that other pollutants are also leaking from the orphaned well and that “if something is leaking just a little bit now, it could leak more later.”

“Our job is to basically come up with a suite of technologies that are economical in detecting these wells, so you can identify them,” he said.

Once the well is identified, the consortium is also tasked with characterizing it. He explained that characterizing the well is essentially figuring out what is needed to address it.

In states like New York and Pennsylvania, some wells were drilled in the mid-1800s before regulations were in place, Viswanathan said. Then, during World War II when there was a metal shortage, metal preventing leaks was removed from well casings.

Modern wells, in contrast, have well-written rules about how plugging is to be done, he said.

“You just can’t spend an enormous amount of money on each individual well, so we need to come up with a clever set of characterization techniques,” Viswanathan said.

During the process, the consortium will develop best practices that states can then implement on their own for identifying and characterizing the wells.

“I think it’s an exciting program just because we are looking to reduce emissions and also prevent these wells from polluting,” he said. “And finally there’s good funding to do this. I think it is a nice intersection between kind of bleeding-edge science and an impactful project where we can work with all the different states.”