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In Louisiana, orphan wells seen as an ‘accident waiting to happen’

SHREVEPORT, La. – About 10 feet from Rickey Jordan’s home, just steps away from the window where his daughter and two granddaughters sleep, an orphaned well is leaking.

The 83-year-old well, which runs a mile deep, has been leaking an unknown gas on and off for years. The latest started in mid-June, state records show.

Jordan’s 5- and 9-year-old grandkids have to play by “Rickey’s rule”: Stay out of the yard. Parts of the well still poke a foot out of the ground. Beyond the safety of his family, he’s also worried for his entire subdivision of mostly Black residents. Jordan, who’s worked in the oil field industry for 40 years, knows the danger of so-called “orphan wells” and has grown tired of asking the state to fix it.

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“We just stopped the kids from playing back there in the yard. I worry because I don’t actually know what’s going on underground. I fear it’s just building up pressure,” Jordan said. “There are no toys back there. No anything back there. The backyard is off-limits to them. I’m the only one that goes, and I have to be careful when I’m cutting the grass.”

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The orphan well in Rickey Jordan’s backyard of his Shreveport, Louisiana, home is seen in this June 2022 photo. Jordan reported to state officials that the well was leaking an unknown gas. It was inspected several times by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, but work remains incomplete. Photo courtesy of Rickey Jordan

There are roughly 4,600 orphaned oil and natural gas wells across Louisiana, some of which are leaking and polluting the environment. State officials say there are likely many more that have not been documented. Wells are considered “orphaned” when they’re forgotten or ignored by the companies that drilled them, in some cases because of bankruptcy, but in others, because they simply no longer maintain them. Complicating the picture are “idle wells” that have not been abandoned but are also not in use for oil and gas production and have not been permanently sealed. Some sit idle for decades. The office of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor stated in a 2014 report that orphaned wells “pose environmental and public safety risks.”

Orphan wells can leak oil, brine and other toxic chemicals as well as emit methane, a greenhouse gas that harms air quality and contributes to climate change. They can also taint water sources and lower property values, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

EDF, too, has mapped 81,000 orphan wells across 28 states. It would cost about $6 billion to plug all of them, according to an analysis from the environmental nonprofit and advocacy group.

Louisiana ranks 10th among states with the most orphan oil and gas wells. An analysis by EDF found that 230,000 people in the state live within a mile of an orphan well, including 15,000 children under 5 years old. Across the country, a total of 9 million people live within a mile of an orphaned well. The state’s department of natural resources says it does not track how many people live near orphan wells.

Orphaned oil and gas wells in Louisiana

Source: Department of Natural Resources, Strategic Online Natural Resources Information System

This map shows the roughly 4,600 orphaned oil and natural gas wells across Louisiana, some of which are leaking and polluting the environment. Where are the orphan wells near your neighborhood? Hover over each point to see individual well information from the state natural resources department. Visualization by Jenna Cohen/PBS NewsHour

Cleaning up the mess has usually fallen to state agencies and taxpayers. But as part of a new federal program aimed at plugging the growing number of orphan oil and gas wells, Louisiana is positioned to receive more than $111 million from the federal government.

Louisiana would initially be awarded about $47 million to plug and clean up orphan wells as part of the first phase of funding and grants from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Louisiana’s allotment would grow in later phases. Despite the infusion of cash, it will only deal with roughly a fourth of the state’s current orphan wells, according to the latest figures. That estimate is based on an average cost of $38,000 to plug a well, although some may cost more or less due to several factors including equipment costs, location and the scope of the work, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources​​ (DNR).

In the past, through its own program, DNR has only been able to plug 100 to 200 wells per year. In recent years, fewer than 200 wells have been plugged. A 2021 survey of idle and orphaned oil and gas wells conducted by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission showed Louisiana has plugged 3,450 orphaned wells since it launched the state program in 1993.

The money from the infrastructure bill will double the funding currently in the state’s Orphan Well Fund, said DNR spokesperson Patrick Courreges​​. The additional money should also expedite the cleanup by bringing in more contractors, he added.

“We’re hopeful that we might be able to double what we normally do. When you’re 4,000 [wells] behind, and new orphans are made every year, it’s tough to get ahead. One thing we’ve always struggled with is the lack of contractors willing to do the work,” Courreges said. “Now, we could do more.”

Why are wells orphaned?

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This orphan oil well is located in the Starks oil field of Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish. The well was plugged, and the surrounding area around it was cleaned up by the state in 2010. Photo by Louisiana Department of Natural Resources

DNR defines an abandoned well as one “no longer in use, whether dry, inoperable or no longer productive, and the previous operator has intentionally relinquished its interest in the well,” sometimes with little liability due to bankruptcy.

“Louisiana has seen more than a century of intensive oil and gas development and hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled across the state. Unfortunately, lax oversight and enforcement have left a toxic legacy in countless communities where oil and gas companies failed to clean up after themselves,” according to EDF’s website.

That history, the group added, “has left a devastating environmental legacy of unplugged wells, the scale of which is just beginning to come into focus.”

Jordan said he first noticed the previously undocumented well in 2017 and reported it to DNR. In 2020, state records show an inspection that documented 150 pounds of pressure per square inch, along with a smell of oil.

That’s an immense amount of pressure pushing on the cap, said David Levy, who serves on the Louisiana Oilfield Site Restoration Commission. “One wrong bump from a lawnmower, vehicle or misplaced step could lead to serious injury.”

To prevent chemicals from leaking into the air or soil, a well must be properly plugged with cement. Left unplugged, oil and gas wells are at risk of leaking methane into the atmosphere and toxic chemicals into groundwater. State rules indicate that wells should be cut at least two feet below plow depth and hidden from view. It is not. Jordan said you can see the leak when you pour a bottle of soapy water over it; bubbles appear around the surface.

One report says a contractor “welded up leaks on the wellhead” on Jordan’s property for a second time as late as February 2020. However, Jordan said in June 2022 “it’s still bubbling up,” spewing what he believes to be methane.

“You can hear it. You can clearly see it,” Jordan said of the leak.

Courreges of DNR confirmed some work was initially completed on the well in 2017 to reduce the risk of leaking gas, but “it was not fully plugged” and “there are some issues with getting equipment onsite to properly plug the site.” After the PBS NewsHour requested information about the well, inspectors visited the well again June 30. State records indicate a “contractor welded on a collar around the valve and put a bullplug in the top.”

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Rickey Jordan stands next to the orphaned well in his backyard. He reported the leaking well to state officials in 2017. Photo by Louisiana Department of Natural Resources

Jordan is outraged that the oil company, now defunct, left a mess and that it’s been five years since he first reported the problem, and his yard is still unsafe. He said state officials are “dragging their feet.”

“Louisiana has a big problem with letting oil companies walk away without cleaning up their mess,” Jordan said. “It goes back to the state. They give them the permits to do all the stuff they do but there is no responsibility for what they do afterwards.”

‘An accident waiting to happen’

Until now, the state has relied on the Oilfield Site Restoration Fund (OSRF) to pay for plugging orphaned wells. That fund is replenished by a quarterly fee on oil and gas operators; the more oil and gas they produce, the more they pay into the fund. Critics say it falls short and lets the industry off the hook.

The 2014 state audit found that a fee on all oil and gas operators, which funds the OSRF, was not sufficient to keep pace with the growing number of orphaned wells in the state. The state legislature increased the fee, but a follow-up audit in 2020 found that it still wasn’t enough to cover the cost of plugging the wells.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré is on the front lines of the fight to demand that oil corporations – not taxpayers – pay to “clean up their own mess.”

Honoré is a retired general and commander of U.S. relief efforts for areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, and he led an investigation into the U.S. Capitol Police’s response to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Honoré founded GreenARMY, a coalition of civic and environmental groups, as well as state residents. He demands that oil companies pay for neglecting infrastructure.

“They have hijacked our democracy,” Honoré said, “and the way they do that is through regulatory capture and through the state legislature. They do that through political donations.”

“It is why we don’t hear lawmakers raising hell about abandoned oil wells or abandoned pipelines,” he added.

Honoré said Louisiana’s laws and regulations have created a system in which oil and gas companies are incentivized to walk away from wells without plugging them up and cleaning the sites.

“The whole system is corrupt. The companies agree when they get a permit to fully restore the land, but they’d never restore anything,” Honoré said. “It’s good that we’ll get some wells capped by using federal dollars. What’s bad about it is that we are not holding the companies that drilled and sold the wells accountable for the mess they made. The cumulative impact is that it is having a profound effect on our ecology.”

Environmentalists believe the numbers in the state could explode and say it is a losing battle because the number of wells the state is plugging is being outpaced by the rate at which wells are being orphaned.

Scott Eustis, community science director for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit coastal restoration organization headquartered in New Orleans, said the neglected infrastructure in Louisiana’s wetlands, including the thousands of orphan and idle wells across the state, leaves the coast extremely vulnerable. He cited the hundreds of oil spill reports following Hurricane Ida.

Eustis said the spills point to the frailty of the Gulf Coast’s oil and gas infrastructure, and the damage caused by intensifying storms fueled by climate change and corrosion.
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“You neglect this infrastructure at your peril. If there is anything left in the well to leak, it will certainly leak after a hurricane,” Eustis said. “Imagine an 8-foot wall of water that pushes across a 50-year-old steel structure. It’s rotten with saltwater. It’s rusted to the point where you can’t turn the valve. We have thousands and thousands of little pieces of very brittle infrastructure on our coast and across our entire state.”

The issue also makes some communities more vulnerable than others.

Jordan also wondered why wells in rural areas have been fixed but his neighborhood is left with the troubled well.

“I feel like I’ve been discriminated against living in a minority community. I believe we’re getting railroaded. I wonder how many wells they have capped off since 2017 when I first reported it,” Jordan said. “This one here in the Black community and with many people living around it. I feel like it’s not important to them but they can plug the ones out in the middle of nowhere. Why?”

Eustis said a more robust government program is needed and the proposed federal grant is only a downpayment on a big problem.

“We need to realize that Louisiana’s enforcement is very lax. If that number explodes, no one should be surprised because we have more than 24,000 wells that are just uneconomic and sitting there idle,” Eustis said. “Companies should not be able to shut down their well for a decade. If the well has been shut down or idle for that long, the state should make the company plug the well; instead of allowing unplugged wells to just be neglected until they wind up in the orphanage.”

In a letter to state lawmakers following the 2020 report, legislative auditor Daryl Purpera said the state was behind in requiring operators to plug disused wells that are yet to be abandoned, NOLA.com reported. Purpera added that the state has failed to conduct required reinspections of nearly half of 163 out-of-compliance wells.

“The state doesn’t have enough inspectors to go and inspect all these sites. They have no air monitors on them. They have nothing. They just sit there,” Honoré said. “We’ve got hundreds and thousands of these wells that could be productive right now with oil over a hundred dollars a barrel. But the industry itself is not interested in reactivating those wells because they get $6 a gallon at the pump. They’re just sitting out there, an accident waiting to happen.”

A 2020 report by the Columbia University Resources for the Future said plugging orphaned wells “can reduce a considerable amount of methane emissions.” For Louisiana, a plugging operation could also bring about 1,100 jobs a year.

The oil and gas industry is looking forward to the federal funding to clean up orphaned wells, saying it would boost the state’s ailing oil industry.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had an opportunity to get money from taxpayers. We’re all for it. Any help we can get to clean that up is positive. We’re also excited about having some funding to come in to put the service side back to work,” said Mike Moncla, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA). “The oil and gas business has always had to make it on its own. If we want to look at it as a subsidy to oil and gas; this is the first one we’re getting, we’ll take it.”

LOGA says it’s been a tough seven years for the industry with more than 1,000 bankruptcies in Louisiana. Moncla also disputes there is great environmental damage.

“If they were releasing any kind of oil, then there would probably be an operator taking over the well producing the oil. So for the most part, I would say, 99 percent of orphan wells aren’t releasing anything,” Moncla said. “It’s more oil on the ground. I don’t think there is as much methane leaking as the federal government thinks.”

However, most environmentalists, researchers, and government agencies have recognized leaks from orphaned wells as an environmental problem, health hazard and a public nuisance.

Back in Shreveport, Rickey Jordan said he’s been sick from “inhaling toxic gas.” As long as the well lingers, it is not just his health and family in jeopardy. It’s also his property value.

“I’m just stuck with this well. I have to live with it and the value of my property is nothing as long as it is sitting there in my backyard,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the estimated amount of money it would cost to plug the tens of thousands of orphan wells documented in 28 states. It would cost about $6 billion to plug them all, according to an analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund.