May 17, 2023

Northwest New Mexico could provide needed insight into finding orphaned oil and gas wells

Hannah Grover/NM Political Report

Eric Guiltinan and Emily Follansbee with Los Alamos National Laboratory examine a well in the Horseshoe Gallup field that is believed to be orphaned. A sign written in Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, provides a warning.

A largely abandoned oil and gas field in northwest New Mexico could help a team of researchers develop ways to identify and characterize orphaned wells.

A team from Los Alamos National Laboratory that is involved in the multi-lab initiative visited the Horseshoe Gallup field west of Farmington last week. There are more than two dozen wells identified in that field as eligible for federal funding intended to help plug orphaned wells.

Don Schreiber, a San Juan Basin activist who is part of an effort to get the Horseshoe Gallup field cleaned up, guided the team along with Earthworks thermographers.

“This well and many others here are still listed as active, but they may have produced 10 barrels in the last 10 years,” he told the LANL crew.

Schreiber and others involved in the cleanup effort say that, though the wells are still listed as active, they are actually orphaned and the companies listed as their most recent owner are mainly no longer in existence.

An orphaned well is one that has no legal owner. One common reason this occurs is because of bankruptcy, but there are other reasons as well.

LANL teamed up with several other national labs, including Sandia National Laboratories, in October to develop a way to identify orphaned wells and characterize them. This will help prioritize where plugging occurs. 

The consortium began working together on orphaned wells in light of new federal funding available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the bipartisan infrastructure law, to plug orphaned wells.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has identified more than 130,000 orphaned wells in 30 states including in New Mexico. But many more remain unidentified. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there could be millions of orphaned and abandoned wells. Finding each one individually could be a challenge, so the team hopes to develop a way to use drones over oil fields to locate unidentified wells.

Orphaned and abandoned wells can continue to leak methane and toxic pollutants into the atmosphere.

The LANL crew took precautionary measures as they approached the well sites in the Horseshoe Gallup field. They immediately hung a ribbon on the well when they arrived so that they could know which direction the wind was blowing from. That allowed them to remain upwind from any emissions. They also wore or carried monitors to detect hydrogen sulfide. 

To further check for leaks, they sprayed areas of the well site with soapy water. 

The first well they visited did not have any leaks they could identify, but when they reached another well, the soapy water started to bubble as the leaking air and gas pushed through it. 

Emily Follansbee, an engineer with Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Eric Guiltinan, a staff scientist, use a machine to search for methane leaks at a well in the Horseshoe Gallup field west of Farmington.

The team then got out equipment to determine if methane was leaking from the well and discovered that it was. 

The majority of orphaned wells are in Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While different approaches may be needed regionally to identify orphaned wells, the Horseshoe Gallup field is a good place to start, the LANL team said.

This is because the wells are visible sometimes for miles.

In other regions of the country such as Pennsylvania, dense vegetation has obscured the well sites or the above ground components have been removed.

Eric Guiltinan, a staff scientist in LANL’s Earth and Environmental Science Division, said the crew plans on returning this summer to fly drones over the Horseshoe Gallup field. These drones will be equipped with methane sensors and optical imaging.

“We’d like this to be a test bed,” Guiltinan said.

The Horseshoe Gallup field was chosen because the state Oil Conservation Division has identified wells within the area that are eligible for the federal reclamation funding.

“It’s a beautiful area and I think it’s going to be a good place to fly,” Guiltinan said.

The Horseshoe Gallup field has few trees that could impede the flight operations. There are also bluffs where the drones can fly from.

“I really like this project because it has the potential to be really impactful,” Guiltinan said.