A Methane Pandemic: Millions of Abandoned Wells Are Leaking into the Atmosphere

SS25 in Southern California Gas Company’s vast Aliso Canyon facility        Photo: Wikimedia CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

As the candidates debate fracking, millions of abandoned natural gas wells are leaking literally tons of methane into the atmosphere, and there’s no fix in sight. There are an estimated 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in the United States, and an estimated 29 million worldwide. These deserted wells and pipelines wreak havoc in the atmosphere, where methane captures up to 86 times more heat than CO2, and on the ground, where unplugged wells buried under new residential developments cause explosions and health hazards.  Joe Biden last week talked about capping abandoned wells, which are a huge source of methane pollution, even as he says he will not ban fracking on private lands.

Why This Matters:  Methane leaks are dangerous — they have led to reports of tap water catching fire, toxic groundwater, and fatal explosions, all of which have been motivators for the federal government to track and seal these wells. This methane then escapes into the atmosphere, where it absorbs heat and accelerates rising temperatures. Oil and gas companies remain unaccountable, leaving it up to either local governments or residents to find a solution. And EPA has rolled back its rules on methane releases, and some states, as a part of their COVID-19 relief efforts, offered waivers to oil and gas companies allowing them to delay safety checks on abandoned wells.

Leaving a mess behind

In the past 5 years alone, 207 oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt, but their wells remain standing. Fortune Magazine reported that these companies often “temporarily” cap these wells intending to come back when gas prices rise; they often never do. Joshua Macey, an assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago explains, “it’s cheaper to idle them than to clean them up.” These leaks risk the lives of entire communities, and often aren’t disclosed to residents; even federal regulators don’t know the locations of many of these wells. Some local governments have “come across wells where folks have set up their garden around them.”

Invisible danger

“If carbon dioxide is a bullet, methane is a bomb.” Despite making up a smaller percentage of overall gas emissions than carbon dioxide, the same amount of methane traps more heat in our atmosphere than its counterpart. The EPA believes that the amount of environmental damage caused by leaking methane may be larger than previously thought due to incomplete data. Recent studies have shown that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for much of the methane leaking into the atmosphere.

In his CNN town hall, Joe Biden fought back against claims by President Trump that Biden, if elected, would ban all hydraulic fracturing. The Democratic candidate’s position on fracking has softened since the primaries, on Thursday going so far as to say that fracking “has to continue” as a “transition” away from fossil fuels. However, some climate experts believe that the US must move faster if it hopes to avoid a major climate crisis in the near future.

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