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Geologic sources and well integrity impact methane emissions from orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells

December 29, 2023

The 160-year history of oil and gas drilling in the United States has left a legacy of unplugged orphaned and abandoned wells, some of which are leaking methane and other hazardous chemicals into the environment. The locations of around 120,000 documented orphaned wells are currently known with the number of undocumented orphaned wells possibly ranging towards a million. The bulk of methane emissions originate from only 10 % of orphaned and abandoned wells, while the remaining wells have undetectable emissions. Understanding the sources of methane emissions from orphaned wells is key to estimating emission rates and prioritizing plugging. In this article, we identify key studies reporting methane emission measurements from orphaned and abandoned wells in the published literature and analyze previously published isotopic methane data to categorize the sources of methane emissions. Three primary geologic sources provide methane to a leaking well that can migrate from geologic formations into or along the wellbore to contaminate groundwater, the surface environment, and the atmosphere. These geologic sources of methane are petroleum (oil and gas) sourced reservoirs, coal seams, and methanogenesis occurring in and around the wellbore. Thermogenic petroleum gas reservoirs are associated with the highest emission rates measured to date. The next highest rates are from coalbed methane sources, while biogenic sources are the lowest based on the publicly available measured emissions data. Well conditions that could potentially enable methane transport include decay of the wellhead and surface infrastructure, wellbore deterioration from corrosive fluids in the subsurface, delamination of the casing and cement, damage from seismicity, and new fracture networks created by hydraulic fracturing of newly drilled neighboring wells. With an understanding of these geologic sources and well conditions, we can (1) better identify areas where high-emitting wells are likely to be present, (2) improve emission rate estimates from orphaned and abandoned wells, and (3) better prioritize wells for plugging.

Publication Year 2024
Title Geologic sources and well integrity impact methane emissions from orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.169584
Authors Nicholas J. Gianoutsos, Karl B. Haase, Justin E. Birdwell
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Science of the Total Environment
Index ID 70250810
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Central Energy Resources Science Center