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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Impact Of Abandoned Oil Wells On The Environment

As dozens of countries across the globe focus on reducing emissions and improving environmental practices, recent studies show that abandoned oil and gas wells could be having a severely detrimental impact on the environment.  Across the USA and Canada, methane is leaking out of 4 million abandoned oil and gas wells, contributing significantly to climate change. This January, researchers from McGill University announced that these leaks are causing considerably more environmental damages than originally estimated by national governments. 

According to a study from Environmental Science and Technology, figures suggest Canada has underestimated its methane emissions from abandoned wells by 150 percent, and the USA by around 20 percent. 

While methane emissions from abandoned wells were reported to the United Nations as part of the U.S. and Canada’s greenhouse gas inventories, experts worry that there could be as many as 500,000 undocumented wells in the USA and 60,000 in Canada contributing to these emissions. 

In 2018, in the USA alone, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted 281 kilotons of methane, equivalent in terms of climate change to consuming 16 million barrels of crude oil.

Related: Global Natural Gas Demand Set To Rebound After Pandemic Shock

And it’s not just in the USA and Canada that we’re seeing this problem. Extensive exploration projects by thousands of companies and governments means there are millions of abandoned wells in various states across the globe. 

In the Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of wells are leaking methane gas into the ocean. Although all these wells are supposed to be plugged to prevent leaks, few of these plugs are monitored to ensure their effectiveness. On top of methane leaks, some of these wells are also releasing other gasses into the surrounding environment such as benzene, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide.

In addition, recent studies in Europe suggest that decommissioned wells could be the dominant source of methane in the North Sea. According to Geomar, there are thousands of tonnes of methane are leaking onto the North Sea floor annually. 

As well as damaging the environmental, leaks from abandoned wells pose a great threat to public health. For example, there have been several instances where unmaintained wells have been linked to groundwater contamination.

Yet, beyond independent studies, there is little data available to present the whole picture on a global scale. Energy companies are understandably unenthusiastic about exploring this issue further, leaving governments and environmental organizations to slowly understand the gravity of the situation. 

However, if oil majors were willing to monitor and maintain decommissioned wells more closely, they could prevent these methane leaks and their impact on the environment. In fact, better management of these wells might even buy energy companies time to introduce long-term green policies by improving the current situation without curbing fossil fuel production. 

Having been overlooked for decades, abandoned wells present a substantial challenge on a global scale. Methane gasses leaking into the atmosphere could exacerbate climate change. Further, as companies justify the need to continue to produce cheap fossil fuels to provide affordable energy, while regulators and governments are putting pressure on them to reduce emissions, leaking wells present a major challenge with no reward.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 30 2021 said:
    Of recent times, European oil supermajors were competing with each other in greenwashing themselves and trying to re-invent themselves as energy companies with plans to achieve zero emissions by 2050. These efforts were part of burnishing their environmental credentials and justifying the writing down of billions of dollars of oil and gas assets, cutting dividends drastically and making thousands of their employees redundant.

    However, the European oil supermajors, particularly BP aren’t kidding anybody by their antics. The whole world knows that the minute oil and gas prices start to surge, they will forget about greenwashing themselves and go back to the core business that sustains them for decades, namely oil and gas.

    Moreover, the global oil industry knows full well that it is neither in its interest to reinvent itself as an energy industry nor will it be able to achieve zero emissions by 2050 or even 2100.

    However, the industry can efficiently and handsomely contribute to reducing global pollution by reducing sensibly the emission footprint in its production of oil and gas and refining whilst maintaining the core business that has sustained it for decades.

    A good starting point for the oil industry is to monitor and maintain the millions of decommissioned oil wells around the world more closely to ensure that they are tightly plugged to prevent methane leaks and their impact on the environment. In so doing, it will be contributing far more to reducing global emissions and protecting the environment than attempting to reinvent itself as an energy industry.

    In 2018, in the USA alone, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted 281 kilotons of methane, equivalent in terms of climate change to consuming 16 million barrels of crude oil. And yet, the American Petroleum Institute (API), a landmark of the United States oil industry and also an authoritative source of information and data on oil, went along with former President Trump’s policy of relaxing existing regulations on methane emissions just to help the shale oil industry. This has tarnished the scientific integrity and objectivity of the API.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 30 2021 said:
    Of recent times, European oil supermajors were competing with each other in greenwashing themselves and trying to re-invent themselves as energy companies with plans to achieve zero emissions by 2050. These efforts were part of burnishing their environmental credentials and justifying the writing down of billions of dollars of oil and gas assets, cutting dividends drastically and making thousands of their employees redundant.

    However, the European oil supermajors, particularly BP aren’t kidding anybody by their antics. The whole world knows that the minute oil and gas prices start to surge, they will forget about greenwashing themselves and go back to the core business that sustains them for decades, namely oil and gas.

    Moreover, the global oil industry knows full well that it is neither in its interest to reinvent itself as an energy industry nor will it be able to achieve zero emissions by 2050 or even 2100.

    However, the industry can efficiently and handsomely contribute to reducing global pollution by reducing sensibly the emission footprint in its production of oil and gas and refining whilst maintaining the core business that has sustained it for decades.

    A good starting point for the oil industry is to monitor and maintain the millions of decommissioned oil wells around the world more closely to ensure that they are tightly plugged to prevent methane leaks and their impact on the environment. In so doing, it will be contributing far more to reducing global emissions and protecting the environment than attempting to reinvent itself as an energy industry.

    In 2018, in the USA alone, 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted 281 kilotons of methane, equivalent in terms of climate change to consuming 16 million barrels of crude oil. And yet, the American Petroleum Institute (API), a landmark of the United States oil industry and also an authoritative source of information and data on oil, went along with former President Trump’s policy of relaxing existing regulations on methane emissions just to help the shale oil industry. This has tarnished the scientific integrity and objectivity of the API.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • WrenchJockey on January 30 2021 said:
    Um... how can wells in the GOM be releasing carbon dioxide? That’s not a naturally occurring gas. The process that creates carbon dioxide cannot occur in wells since there is no oxygen present. There are also hardly, if any, CO2 floods in the GOM to inject the gas into the ground. I’d love to know the source of the information that is stated as fact.

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