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For years, the smell of gas wafting through the grounds of the Franciscan Village senior housing facility in Cleveland was a joke among its residents, although they did not realize where the odor was coming from. A few months ago they found out.
An old gas well left unused since the 1950s had broken its clay plug, and methane and other chemical compounds were seeping out, just a few dozen feet from the three apartment buildings making up the 176-unit independent living facility.
“There were a couple of chairs back there, and I’d just sit around and read or listen to the birds, and it was beautiful. And all of a sudden, you’d go, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to leave,’” said Susie Black, a resident for nearly eight years, recalling the nasty smell.
This year, construction at the facility uncovered the leaking wel—and prompted quick action.
Curtis Shuck, chairman of the nonprofit Well Done Foundation that has been plugging the well, pointed to two nearby buildings, both just 30 feet (9 m) away.
He was squatting under a large rig that would be used to drill out the culprit: a shallow hole with an old, six-inch (15-cm) metal pipe going down perhaps as far as 2,700 feet—no one was sure, he said.
For the first time, the U.S. government is giving such old wells major attention in an effort to curb environmental pollution, reduce climate-heating emissions of methane, and create green jobs.
In November, it allocated $4.7 billion to tackle the problem of the orphan wells nationally.
This month officials released final guidance on how states could start applying for the money.
Already 26 states—almost every one with documented orphan wells—have indicated they intend to apply for the grants, according to the Interior Department.
There are tens of thousands of old wells on federal lands nationwide, and at least another 130,000 on state and private lands, according to department official Steven H. Feldgus.
But, he told a congressional hearing last month, "the actual number is probably much higher".
The full number is unknown because for decades energy companies were not required to maintain or even record where their capped wells were located.
Adam Peltz, a senior attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said there could be up to a million in total across the country.
Government officials, green groups, oil service workers and others are now expecting a stampede of action throughout the coming decade, with implications for local economies, groundwater contamination and climate change.
A federal program to plug a half-million wells could create as many as 120,000 specialized oil and gas industry jobs, according to 2020 research from Columbia University and Resources for the Future, a think-tank.
The Well Done Foundation has already been doing this work for a few years, pioneering a funding approach that uses carbon credits linked to curbing the wells’ methane emissions.
That morning, it had received its plugging permit for the Cleveland site—a process that would probably take a small crew a week or two.
Shuck, who set up the foundation in 2019 after three decades in the oil and gas industry, wrapped a large bag around the top of the pipe and timed how long it took to quickly inflate with escaping gases.
“This one is averaging about 5,000 cubic feet per day—a lot of impact to the environment,” he explained.
Return on Investment
Oil and gas development in the United States began in the mid-19th century in Pennsylvania, noted Peltz of the EDF, and since then about 4 million wells have been drilled.
Operators have long been required to plug wells once finished, but “the system hasn’t worked right,” he added.
Most of the new federal money will now go to the known backlog of orphan wells, but some will also help track down lost wells using drones, landowner reports and more, said Peltz, who helped write the new legislation.
“These wells are everywhere, in every kind of urban, suburban and rural setting. Around 9 million people live within a mile of these documented orphaned wells,” he said.
Other funds will seek to bolster preparations for plugging the 1 million wells still active today, up to three-quarters of which are already producing low volumes, Peltz said.
Energy production is today one of the largest drivers of changing land use in the United States, said Matthew D. Moran, a biology professor at Hendrix College.
Most oil and gas wells are on private land, so companies typically lease the rights to drill, and after the wells run out, the rights revert to the owner, he said.
“In many cases, an abandoned pad might be an acre in size, and nothing is going on. It’s an abandoned piece of land, and restoring it costs money,” he explained.
Last year he and other researchers estimated it would cost about $7 billion to restore 430,000 well sites on 800,000 hectares nationally—but found the financial benefits of doing so would be about three times higher.
Factoring in harder-to-quantify effects such as rising property values and attractiveness would yield even more—altogether adding up to probably five or six times the cost, the team estimated.
“We think that’s pretty concrete and direct to the economies in these places,” Moran said. “We consider this an investment.”
Work for Drillers
Back in Cleveland, Keith Moore was getting ready to do what his family has done for decades: drill oil and gas wells.
He has not drilled any new wells since 2014, however, with changing economics making small-scale operations unprofitable, he said.
Instead, for years, he and his crews have been doing the complicated work of plugging old wells.
“We un-drill them, that’s the best way to describe what we do,” he said, standing next to his equipment at the Franciscan Village site.
There was no formal record of the well here, said Donnald J. Heckelmoser Jr., CEO of LSC Service Corporation, which manages the property.
“We always knew something was there, but never knew it was an orphan well,” Heckelmoser said.
Its discovery halted the construction of a new atrium that will cover the landscaped yard area, but with the capping underway, Heckelmoser felt the project was getting back on track.
As someone who oversees multiple properties and seeks to develop more affordable housing in the Cleveland area, he now knows what to do should the situation arise again.
“There’s a solution, and luckily we were able to find that,” he said.
After drilling out the well to its full depth, the hole is filled with concrete, which can take a few days to weeks, said Moore, who will do 15 to 20 such projects this year.
He recalled plugging wells in some crazy places, including a highway and a school gymnasium.
“If you took a shotgun and shot a map, that’s how many wells are left to be capped,” he said. "They’re anywhere and everywhere.”
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