Federal Funds Will Help Plug More Orphan Wells Faster

Tue, June 22, 2021

President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $16 billion to clean up and restore orphaned oil and natural gas wells. The funds would help pay for existing cleanup efforts in states across the country, including Texas. As a quick refresher, an “orphan well” is one that has not gone through the plugging process or does not have an identifiable owner.

While the term “orphan well” means generally the same thing across the country, some states have specific definitions for that term. Here in Texas, according to the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), the regulatory body that oversees Texas oil and natural gas development, an orphan well is an inactive and unplugged well that has not produced oil or natural gas for a minimum of 12 months.

Just last year, the RRC went above and beyond its target of plugging abandoned oil and gas wells throughout the state for the fourth straight year. In a statement, the RRC said it had plugged 1,477 orphan wells in fiscal-year 2020, exceeding the target of 1,400 set by the state legislature.

The RRC said:

“The state-managed plugging program is an important part of our critical mission to protect public safety and the environment… The program also helps to employ oilfield service company workers throughout Texas. These employees are contracted and supervised to plug abandoned orphan wells by the Railroad Commission of Texas.”

Texas regulations require well operators to strategically place cement plugs throughout the wellbore (the hole that was drilled) at a series of critical intervals to prevent fluid or gas releases into the air and groundwater. The process requires each well meet the state’s requirements and any additional requirements identified in a notice of intent to plug.

Outside of Texas, states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are currently working on cataloging and identifying the number of orphan wells in the state in order to gain a better understanding of the scope of orphan wells in each state. It is estimated that most orphan wells across the country originate from the early days of American oil and natural gas development.

Older wells – especially those drilled before the 1950s – are more likely to have been improperly abandoned and poorly documented. However, thanks to innovation and regulation, orphan wells rarely stem from modern operations, and more and more wells each year are properly plugged.

With this increased focus on orphan wells from the Biden administration and state governments, the oil and natural gas industry has the potential to work hand-in-hand to plug orphan wells and do its part to protect the environment and restore well sites to their original ecological condition.