Abandoned Wells as “Super-Emitters” of Greenhouse Gas

by Duane Nichols on December 11, 2014

Tens of thousands of abandoned gas wells

Princeton University – Abandoned wells can be ‘super-emitters’ of greenhouse gas(es)

From an Article by John Sullivan, Office of Engineering Communications, Princeton University, December 9, 2014

Princeton University researchers have uncovered a previously unknown <or not understood>, and possibly substantial, source of the greenhouse gas methane to the Earth’s atmosphere.

After testing a sample of abandoned oil and natural gas wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, the researchers found that many of the old wells leaked substantial quantities of methane. Because there are so many abandoned wells nationwide (a recent study from Stanford University concluded there were roughly 3 million abandoned wells in the United States) the researchers believe the overall contribution of leaking wells could be significant.

The researchers said their findings identify a need to make measurements across a wide variety of regions in Pennsylvania but also in other states with a long history of oil and gas development such as California and Texas. “The research indicates that this is a source of methane that should not be ignored,” said Michael Celia, the Theodore Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton. “We need to determine how significant it is on a wider basis.”

Methane is the unprocessed form of natural gas. Scientists say that after carbon dioxide, methane is the most important contributor to the greenhouse effect, in which gases in the atmosphere trap heat that would otherwise radiate from the Earth. Pound for pound, methane has about 20 times the heat-trapping effect as carbon dioxide. Methane is produced naturally, by processes including decomposition, and by human activity such as landfills and oil and gas production.

While oil and gas companies work to minimize the amount of methane emitted by their operations, almost no attention has been paid to wells that were drilled decades ago. These wells, some of which date back to the 19th century, are typically abandoned and not recorded on official records.

Mary Kang, then a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, originally began looking into methane emissions from old wells after researching techniques to store carbon dioxide by injecting it deep underground. While examining ways that carbon dioxide could escape underground storage, Kang wondered about the effect of old wells on methane emissions. “I was looking for data, but it didn’t exist,” said Kang, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.

In a paper published Dec. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how they chose 19 wells in the adjacent McKean and Potter counties in northwestern Pennsylvania. The wells chosen were all abandoned, and records about the origin of the wells and their conditions did not exist. Only one of the wells was on the state’s list of abandoned wells. Some of the wells, which can look like a pipe emerging from the ground, are located in forests and others in people’s yards. Kang said the lack of documentation made it hard to tell when the wells were originally drilled or whether any attempt had been made to plug them.

“What surprised me was that every well we measured had some methane coming out,” said Celia. To conduct the research, the team placed enclosures called flux chambers over the tops of the wells. They also placed flux chambers nearby to measure the background emissions from the terrain and make sure the methane was emitted from the wells and not the surrounding area.

Although all the wells registered some level of methane, about 15 percent emitted the gas at a markedly higher level — thousands of times greater than the lower-level wells. Denise Mauzerall, a Princeton professor and a member of the research team, said a critical task is to discover the characteristics of these super-emitting wells.

Mauzerall said the relatively low number of high-emitting wells could offer a workable solution: while trying to plug every abandoned well in the country might be too costly to be realistic, dealing with the smaller number of high emitters could be possible.

“The fact that most of the methane is coming out of a small number of wells should make it easier to address if we can identify the high-emitting wells,” said Mauzerall, who has a joint appointment as a professor of civil and environmental engineering and as a professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.

The researchers have used their results to extrapolate total methane emissions from abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, although they stress that the results are preliminary because of the relatively small sample. But based on that data, they estimate that emissions from abandoned wells represents as much as 10 percent of methane from human activities in Pennsylvania — about the same amount as caused by current oil and gas production. Also, unlike working wells, which have productive lifetimes of 10 to 15 years, abandoned wells can continue to leak methane for decades.

“This may be a significant source,” Mauzerall said. “There is no single silver bullet but if it turns out that we can cap or capture the methane coming off these really big emitters, that would make a substantial difference.”

Besides Kang, who is the paper’s lead author, Celia and Mauzerall, the paper’s co-authors include: Tullis Onstott, a professor of geosciences at Princeton; Cynthia Kanno, who was a Princeton undergraduate and who is a graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines; Matthew Reid, who was a graduate student at Princeton and is a postdoctoral researcher at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland; Xin Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton; and Yuheng Chen, an associate research scholar in geosciences at Princeton.

Support for the research was provided in part by the Princeton Environmental Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

See also:  www.FrackCheckWV.net

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

SkyLark ZME Report December 12, 2014 at 5:26 pm


FRACKING – some sites emit a hundred times more than others

From ZME Science (Germany), December 9, 2014

Not all boreholes are the same – scientists using mobile equipment measured how many gaseous compounds are emitted by the extraction of oil and natural gas in the US. This is the first time an analysis like this has been conducted at a high temporal resolution using a vapor capture system, and the results show that some boreholes have 100 times more emissions than others; the mean value exceeds levels considered safe for humans by 1,000.

The KIT measurement instrument on board of a minivan directly measures atmospheric emissions on site with a high temporal resolution.


SkyLark Canada Report December 12, 2014 at 5:35 pm


Special report: Leaking oil and gas wells across Canada ‘a threat to the environment and public safety’ (Part one of a three-part series)

In Alberta, where old wells have been uncovered in schoolyards, backyards and at shopping malls, officials are saying little about a well that has now turned up at Calgary’s airport, which is in the midst of a $2-billion expansion.

“There is an investigation right now with respect to an abandoned well at the airport,” Brenda Cherry, vice-president of closure and liability at the Alberta Energy Regulator.

And in British Columbia, where it’s estimated as many as 10 per cent of oil and gas wells leak, one leak reportedly cost $8 million to repair.

More than 550,000 holes have been drilled in Canada since North America’s first well gushed “black gold” in southern Ontario in 1858. And industry is boring another 10,000 wells a year as controversial fracking operations in Western Canada extend their reach.

Research suggests that tens of thousands of wells are leaking and some experts argue concerns over fracking are misplaced, saying “wellbore leakage” is the bigger threat.

The leakage affects fracking, as well as conventional oil and gas wells, and is “the more significant issue affecting the social license of the oil and gas industry,” says a recent University of Waterloo report that describes the leaks as “a threat to the environment and public safety.”

The “fugitive” gases often escape from geological formations that oil and gas wells slice through on their way down to the energy deposits being targeted. The gas is buoyant and seeps up through cracks and poorly cemented seals on the wells.

Much of the leaking gas is methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas. The gas escapes into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, and can cause explosions when it accumulates in poorly ventilated areas.

The gas also can seep through the ground, potentially contaminating groundwater, which 30 per cent of Canadians depend on for their drinking supply. Industry and government regulators say the leaks can be plugged and “safely” managed. Critics are not convinced.

“The solution is to stop drilling wells,” says Fortier, of the Collectif Moratoire Alternatives Vigilance Intervention, a citizens’ group.


Windy Hill December 12, 2014 at 6:13 pm

And this is why we need to tax the oil and gas industry, to pay for this kind of remediation….plugging wells.

Let’s set up funds for future remediation issues…… like polluted water.

This makes me ill….. industry making lots of money at our expense….expense to our health and our pocketbooks.

I so much appreciate FrackCheckWV.net and all its reports . .


SkyLark NPR Impact PA December 14, 2014 at 12:56 am


Study: Abandoned wells could be significant source of greenhouse gas

BY Susan Phillips / NPR StateImpact PA, December 11, 2014

PHOTO: An unplugged oil well in the Tamarack Swamp, Warren County, Pennsylvania

A new study out this week shows that Pennsylvania’s abandoned oil and gas wells could be a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Pennsylvania is littered with old oil and gas wells that date back to the 1860’s. Unmapped and unmonitored, these wells can turn into pollution pathways for oil, gas and brine. About 12,000 of an estimated 300,000 wells have been found and plugged. But the peer reviewed report out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows even the plugged wells are leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas.


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