Abandoned oil and natural gas wells pollute the environment across Louisiana

Tens of thousands of abandoned oil and natural gas wells sit idle across the United States. Known as orphan wells, they pose significant dangers to nearby residents and the environment after being ignored or forgotten by the companies who drilled them. States and taxpayers are often left to clean them up. Roby Chavez, who has been reporting on this from Louisiana, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country, tens of thousands of abandoned oil and natural gas wells sit idle. Known as orphan wells, they can pose a significant danger to the environment and to nearby residents.

    For more on this problem, we go to Stephanie Sy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, wells are considered orphaned when they are forgotten or ignored by the companies that drilled them, often leaving a mess behind for states and taxpayers to clean up.

    For more, I'm joined by our communities correspondent, Roby Chavez, who has been reporting on this from Louisiana.

    Roby, it is great to see you.

    Let's jump right in. What kind of specific dangers do these wells cause and how far will this injection of federal funds go to help states clean them up?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Well, Stephanie, the impact is expected to be significant, especially to combat the growing danger of these abandoned wells.

    We already know the danger. 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 take water sources and lower property values.

    Recently, there's been good news on the funding front. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money is being prepped to be sent to states to help address this problem. You might remember, back in January, under the infrastructure law that was passed, there was $4.7 billion earmarked — earmarked to combat this problem.

    Many states are now hoping it will help to cap tens of thousands of wells across the country.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And there are a lot of them.

    Where are all the wells located and how have states dealt with cleaning them up in the past?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Well, look, every state is different.

    Louisiana, for example, has its own fund. Up until now, it's been funded by the oil and gas industry, but only a fraction of the money that's needed. In fact, the Louisiana legislative auditor said that it was in no way enough money to keep up with the pace of the growing demand of these orphan wells.

    And officials believe those federal dollars coming to Louisiana will help them double the amount of money in this fund. As far as the rest of the nation is concerned, the Environmental Defense Fund has mapped some 81,000 orphan wells in 28 states. And according to that organization, nine million people live within a mile of an orphan well.

    And according to an EDF analysis, it may take more money. It would cost, according to them, about $6 billion to plug all of these wells. Many of the states continue to look forward to this money coming their way to help address this problem. Take a look at this graphic that we put together.

    Here are just the top 10 states with the largest amount of orphan wells. Pennsylvania has more than 27,000, followed by Ohio, Oklahoma, Kentucky. And Louisiana there rounds out the top 10.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I know you're on the ground reporting in communities in Louisiana.

    What kind of impacts have you been hearing about?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Well, Louisiana, as you just saw, has some 4,600 wells. The state tells me they have only been able to cap about 100 to 200 wells per year.

    There are 230,000 people in the state that live within a mile of an orphan well, including 15,000 children under the age of 5 years old. As far as those federal dollars are concerned, Louisiana is expected to get $111 million to try and tackle this problem. They expect that we will be able to give them double — double the amount of wells that they're currently capping.

    It's a real problem, especially for people who live near these wells.

    We spoke with Rickey Jordan, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana. Back in 2017, he uncovered an 83-year-old well in his backyard right under the window where his daughter and granddaughter sleep. He reported it to the state. They have gone out and only partially fixed that problem.

    The well continues to poke out of the ground.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Back to the federal funding, though, Roby, does this mean that taxpayers are now footing the bill for a mess that was really left by oil and gas companies?

  • Roby Chavez:

    Look, it depends who you talk to.

    The environmental activists say that, by sending federal dollars, that they expect the number of abandoned oil wells, that number to explode now that federal dollars are coming their way. In fact, we have seen that already. In Pennsylvania, the number of abandoned wells has grown by 200 percent. And, in Oklahoma, the number of abandoned wells have grown by 1500 percent.

    But if you talk to the oil and gas industry, they see this as a subsidy to help with this problem. They think it's a good thing. And they believe it will help put people to work.

    One way or the other, we expect that money to start flowing to the states by October 7.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Thank you, Roby Chavez, "PBS NewsHour"'s communities correspondent, reporting from Louisiana.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both. It is such an undercovered story.

    And you can read more of Roby's reporting about orphan wells on our Web site.

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