Documenting wells leads to cleanup

Carlo John Fazzio Jr.
September 26, 2011
Mae Truxillo Clark
September 28, 2011
Carlo John Fazzio Jr.
September 26, 2011
Mae Truxillo Clark
September 28, 2011

One of the first new assignments handed to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources by state legislators as they completed their 2011 session involves direct work on environmental cleanup at thousands of abandoned oil well sites across the state.

With House Concurrent Resolution 167, the DNR, in consultation with the Department of Environmental Quality and the state attorney general’s office, has been instructed to present a report to the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment and the Senate Committee on Natural Resources regarding the status of abandoned wells, their numbers, identified ownership and the remediation of orphaned oilfield sites. The DNR report is to be delivered to legislators no later than Feb. 1, 2012.


“Louisiana has thousands of abandoned wells, ” said state Rep. Gordon Dove (R-Houma), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment. “Some of the sites have oil and are in need of environmental cleanup.”


Dove said the intention of HCR-167 is to trace the owners of the abandoned oilfields for property cleanup. If they are unable to identify owners, the state might be able tap into a federal superfund for environmental assistance.

However, with recent budgeting uncertainties, that resource might prove to be a dry hole.


Abandoned, or orphaned, well sites are identified as those locations where exploration and extraction efforts have been discontinued and the well owner simply walked away from the property.


These sites have deteriorated over time and because of their condition are often susceptible to releasing oil, gas and saltwater into an immediate area. Over time, some of the forgotten wells have become hidden by a changing landscape to the degree that population centers, including housing subdivisions, may have a leaking well as its centerpiece, unbeknownst to property owners.

In 1993, the state of Louisiana established an Oilfield Site Restoration Program to address the problem of orphaned well sites, and the inability to locate responsible parties to face environmental concerns.


According to background information provided by the DNR, orphaned well sites are intended to receive prioritized consideration so that available funding might be used on those locations that “pose the greatest threat to public safety and the environment.”

The challenge has been that in order to economically decrease the total number of orphaned wells in Louisiana, lower priority sites, generally located near proposed project areas, are often included into that project as an effort to increase cost effectiveness by waiting until a now larger area is available for cleanup activity, thus prolonging negative environmental impact because of the unused well.

A quarterly fee from oil and gas production, 1.5 cents per barrel of oil and three-tenths of one cent for every 1,000 cubic feet of gas produced, is intended to fund cleanup efforts in Louisiana and currently is listed as generating approximately $4 million per year.

The catch to using these finds is being able to recover site restoration costs from responsible parties and others that might share in creating damages.

Even then, the idea of throwing money at the problem is of little significance when compared to practical reality. Oil and gas industry insiders and environmentalists agree that even if unlimited cleanup funds were readily available it would mean little when considering undocumented and long forgotten wells.

“There are at minimum 2.5 million abandoned oil and gas wells-none permanently capped-littering the U.S., and an estimated 20-30 million globally,” green energy publication EcoHearth investigative reporter Steven Kolter wrote. “There is no known technology for securely sealing these tens of millions of abandoned wells. Many, likely hundreds of thousands-are already hemorrhaging oil, brine and greenhouse gases into the environment. Habitats are being fundamentally altered. Aquifers are being destroyed. Some of these abandoned wells are explosive, capable of building-leveling, toxin-spreading detonations. And thanks to primitive capping technologies, virtually all are leaking now, or will be.”

Oil and gas proponents agree that proper capping and cleanup of abandoned well sites is necessary for environmental enhancement, economic security and quality of life issues. The question is how to accomplish those goals. The intention of Louisiana legislators is to take a first step by securing an accurate and complete inventory and then draw a plan of action.

“It is really a big environmental push by Natural Resources and DEQ,” Dove said. “It’s vital to keep Louisiana a clean and environmental state. So we are putting emphasis on that.”

Efforts are being made to document where thousands of orphaned sites might be and determine who is responsible for cleaning up the property associated with them. FILE PHOTO