Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Gas leaks: America’s leaky wells

There are an estimated three million abandoned oil and gas wells across the US There are an estimated three million abandoned oil and gas wells across the US Richard Thornton/Shutterstock
04 Jan
2017
Abandoned oil and gas wells in the US are leaking significant quantities of methane

The US Department of the Interior recently announced a new Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. This new legislation, ‘which will be phased in over time’, updates existing 30-year-old regulations on venting, flaring and leaks from operational oil and gas wells. It is hoped this will eliminate up to 180,000 tons of methane emissions per year, roughly equivalent to 4.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

However, even after an oil or gas well has ceased drilling, it can still leak vast quantities of methane, which has a global warming potential up to 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Studies in western Pennsylvania – a hotspot for drilling in the US – found that gas escaping from abandoned wells (which are unaccounted for on national inventories) made up between five to eight per cent of the state’s total methane emissions. The number of such leaky wells in Pennsylvania is estimated to be between 470,000 and 750,000, with over three million to be found across the entire US. There are also likely to be many more that are undocumented, raising the total number even further.

Our goal was to identify well characteristics that would help identify high emitters, and avoid the cost of plugging abandoned wells with low or no emissions

Crucially, some abandoned wells are considerably more leaky than others, with roughly ten per cent of abandoned US wells believed to be responsible for 90 per cent of the methane produced by them all. Recent work by researchers from Princeton, Stanford, Ohio State and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found the main causes of leaks to be that they were either left unplugged (because of the vast costs involved in plugging abandoned wells), or they were plugged but still being allowed to vent (venting of plugged wells is required in coal areas).

‘Our goal in this work was to identify well characteristics that would help identify high emitters, and thus provide an opportunity to target them for mitigation and avoid the cost of plugging abandoned wells with low or no emissions,’ says Denise Mauzerall, Professor of Environmental Engineering and International Affairs at Princeton. ‘We hope this approach can be used across the United States and abroad to identify high emitters and target them for remediation.’

This was published in the January 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Climate

Marco Magrini looks at the financial pressures spilling out into the…

Geophoto

Few sights are more dramatic than a star-filled sky at…

Polar

A region of Antarctica previously known for relative stability is…

Tectonics

Everything we thought we knew about eruptions could be wrong

Oceans

Sea levels are rising across the globe, but along the…

Polar

Seismometers buried in the Ross Ice Shelf have revealed that…

Wildlife

A tightening of restrictions on the insecticides known as neonicotinoids…

Wildlife

Bonnethead sharks, the second smallest member of the hammerhead family,…

Nature

There’s more than enough plastic in the world. That’s why,…

Wildlife

The recent discovery of more than 200 million termite mounds…

Geophoto

The new year still remains a popular time to set…

Wildlife

After decades battling environmental crises that threaten to rob the…

Climate

As another new year beckons and the fight to protect…

Geophoto

A half century has passed since the ‘Earthrise’ photograph – widely believed to have…

Wildlife

Are howler monkeys being adversely affected by ingestion of pesticides containing…

Tectonics

Why unprepared tourists are putting themselves at risk in order…

Geophoto

The majestic and mighty polar bear is in danger of…

Wildlife

Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…

Wildlife

A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…

Wildlife

Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…