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America has old oil wells that no longer pump oil, but can still release pollution

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

All across America, there are old oil wells that are no longer pumping oil. But they can still release pollution, contaminating water and air and contributing to climate change. It is a multibillion-dollar problem. One challenge is getting money to plug these wells. Another, as NPR Camila Domonoske reports, is just finding them.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Oil wells are supposed to be closed at the end of their lives, plugged up with cement, but many never were - just left unplugged with no one responsible for them. How many? More than 100,000 the government knows about. And if you count the ones they don't - Dan Arthur is a petroleum engineer who's thought about these wells for decades.

DAN ARTHUR: I would say as far as total orphan wells, it's probably more like 1.5 million.

DOMONOSKE: Orphan wells. They stretch from California to New York on ranches and farms and near schools and houses, where they may leak oil or other harmful pollutants into the local water or air. And because oil is often mixed with methane, a potent greenhouse gas, they contribute to climate change, maybe as much as 2 million cars do.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLICKING)

DOMONOSKE: I rode shotgun in Arthur's pickup when he and his stepson, Carter, went out to hunt orphan wells for spring break. Arthur works on orphan well projects, but this is also something they do for fun.

ARTHUR: Carter, keep your eyes peeled, you know, for if you see any other wells or anything like that.

DOMONOSKE: Carter's 13. And when we set off, he almost immediately spots an old well on the side of the road. I don't see it.

Where?

CARTER: By the fire hydrant right there.

DOMONOSKE: That pipe just sticking up.

ARTHUR: Yep.

CARTER: Yep.

ARTHUR: That's an orphan well.

DOMONOSKE: Oh, my gosh.

It may not be a typical spring break activity, but lots of groups are hunting for these wells - government and tribal agencies, academics and nonprofits and companies - all poring over historical photos, looking with drones and airplanes, with magnetometers and machine learning. The Environmental Defense Fund just launched a satellite that might help spot some. And, of course...

ARTHUR: So we're going to scoot by the buffalo here.

DOMONOSKE: ...There's the boots-on-the-ground method.

ARTHUR: So how do you find them? How do you know? You got to go get your ass out and find them.

DOMONOSKE: We're driving through a prairie preserve near Tulsa, Okla. The air smells like smoke from nearby brush fires, and on rolling hills covered with native grasses, bison are roaming around.

ARTHUR: You want to get out and pet it, Carter?

CARTER: Yes, I do.

ARTHUR: No, you don't.

CARTER: Why not?

ARTHUR: We will not let you.

DOMONOSKE: The bison are more dangerous than they look. We're in Osage County. A hundred years ago, there was an oil boom, and white people murdered many members of the Osage tribe to steal their oil wealth. Maybe you saw "Killers Of The Flower Moon." A few of the wells drilled in that bloody time are still pumping. Many others are just relics left unplugged. Along with wells drilled in more recent decades, they all pierce the landscape.

ARTHUR: Oh.

DOMONOSKE: What do you see?

ARTHUR: So what I spotted here is what appears to be an orphan well, maybe a couple of orphan wells. So let's get out and take a look. We'll see if it's charged.

DOMONOSKE: Oh. Watch out for buffalo poop.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

DOMONOSKE: We find a couple of pipes sticking out of the ground with little metal caps on top. They're obviously not producing oil. They're not permanently plugged, either. They're just there. Later, I tracked down the guy who drilled these wells, Shane Matson. These are not century-old wells. They do show up on maps. Matson remembers drilling them specifically.

SHANE MATSON: Oh, yeah, I remember - that was one of my favorites. It was a spectacular, very fascinating well.

DOMONOSKE: He was driving from Texas to Oklahoma when we talked. He signed them over to a former business partner a decade ago, during a very rough time for the oil industry, particularly in Osage County. Old wells often get sold off.

MATSON: And I'm not sure who controls those assets now.

DOMONOSKE: And this is a key question. Identifying orphan wells isn't just about locating a well. You also have to determine if anyone is still liable for plugging costs. And that's a very important question because plugging a well is expensive.

EVERETT WALLER: I have spent as low as 20,000 and as high as 300,000.

DOMONOSKE: Everett Waller is the chair of the Osage Minerals Council. He made a big push to close orphan wells on the tribes' land. Now, remember; companies are supposed to plug wells when they're done, and they're also supposed to put up money in advance to cover the costs if they don't, like if they go bankrupt with open wells. One way to do it is with a surety bond, money that would help cover costs if a well is orphaned. A problem is...

WALLER: The monies on the bonds are not sufficient enough to plug one well, much less a lease with 10 wells on it.

DOMONOSKE: This is not a new problem. Oil companies have put off plugging wells and gone bankrupt and left them orphaned for as long as there's been an oil industry. But it's getting new attention across the country, in part because of rising concerns about climate change. One of Dan Arthur's employees, Daniel Caldwell (ph), is with us, operating an expensive camera that makes invisible gas leaks visible. The wells look good. They're not leaking. But some old tanks that used to be connected to them...

DANIEL CALDWELL: OK. Yeah, see where the hatch is? I think there's a plume.

DOMONOSKE: Caldwell zooms in, and Arthur and I take a peek through the camera.

Oh, there it is. Yeah. There's a little bit...

CALDWELL: Just a little...

DOMONOSKE: It's a different color.

CALDWELL: Yeah. You can kind of see kind of moving upward in kind of a way.

DOMONOSKE: A little stream of planet-warming gases rising up into the air. Methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide. Some wells leak more methane, others less. And overall, agriculture, landfills, active oil and gas production - they all release more. But there are a lot of orphan wells, and unlike farms or active oil wells, they don't benefit anybody. They don't make food or energy or money. There's no reason for them to be open except the fact that they're expensive to close. And as Arthur explained after our trip, that's a problem for more than the climate.

ARTHUR: So these wells can impact people, the environment, groundwater, surface water, soils, all these different things over time. And, you know, it's frustrating for me because a lot of people don't see them.

DOMONOSKE: And if you don't see them, you don't know there's a problem to solve. Right now there's a mix of carrots and sticks to try to prevent companies from orphaning wells in the first place. And the Biden administration is spending billions on orphan wells, enough to plug some of the wells that are out there, at least some of the ones we know about. Camila Domonoske, NPR News, Pawhuska, Okla.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPSODY SONG, "ASTEROIDS FT. HIT-BOY" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.