Orphan Wells and the Plan to Abandon

Posted: January 5, 2022

The United States oil industry is over a century old, and in that time tens of thousands of wells have been drilled all over the country. Up until recently, there has not been a lot of attention paid to the legislative process that guides what exactly should be done to these wells when their owners decide that they have outlived their usefulness. The wells that are left to their own devices are considered “orphan wells.” They have become a hot topic in recent years as some of them have not been properly abandoned meaning that they are allowing communication from subsurface environments to the atmosphere. In layman’s terms, many of these orphan wells are leaking underground fluids or even gas close to the surface or directly into the atmosphere. This short article will explain what exactly the process of abandonment includes, and what changes are coming down the pipeline.

Why do Orphan Wells Exist?

Usually, a well is considered “orphaned” when a company determines that it is no longer feasible to operate the well. This is almost always because it requires more money to keep alive than it makes producing fluids. Once operators determine that it is now uneconomic to operate a well, they would often stop directing all attention and resources to the well. In recent decades, proper plugging and abandonment have become more common practices. Before that, wells were allowed to sit forever without being properly abandoned. Over time, things can get even worse. Components may begin to corrode and completely fall apart making workover expensive or even impossible. This means that the well may allow fluids and gasses to escape as long as there is sufficient pressure pushing them out of the hole. In short, it is pretty easy to find orphaned wells, but it can often be difficult to properly abandon them.

An orphan well in Kentucky that leaking formation water at the surface.

How are the Orphan Wells Abandoned?

Every workover operation has its own special details, but the general process is very standard. First, a workover rig is brought in to create an accessible wellbore. It does this by pulling out the “guts” of the well. Any tubing, packers, or other downhole equipment needs to be removed so that work can be properly complete.

A workover rig pulling tubing from the well

Once the wellbore has been cleared, a coiled tubing unit or “CTU” will enter the hole and begin to apply cement from the bottom through every point of communication between the wellbore and the reservoir rock. These are usually areas that are open holes or perforations into the source rock. As the CTU cements, the workover rig will “tag” the location of each stage by lowering some tubing to the desired level of depth to make sure the concrete has properly hardened. If it has, the CTU is then able to start on the next isolation. This process repeats until all isolation zones have been dealt with, and then another healthy volume is applied. Now the wellbore has been properly abandoned, and final facility demolitions and surface remediations can be completed. This includes cutting off the top portion of the well and welding it shut. The land can now be repurposed, or left in its original state so that no one would even know that it was even a site for oil and gas production.

A CTU working on a well

How will Orphaned Wells be Dealt with in the Future?

There is a good deal of attention being given to orphaned wells from both state and federal levels. On January 14th of 2022, $250 million will be allocated to oil-producing states across the country. The idea is to begin funding some of the orphan well abandonment work and stimulate the businesses (or soon-to-be businesses) that would be overseeing the work. While this is a good deal of money to start with, it will only scratch the surface of all the work that needs to be completed. There are thousands of orphan wells all over the country, and those are only the wells we know of. There are still wells that were not properly logged or recorded that are flying under the radar. States are now requiring more money to be fronted as a bond when someone assumes ownership of a well or is granted the rights to drill one. These bonds act as a sort of insurance covering more of the costs of well abandonment than before. This way, local governments and taxpayers are not stuck footing the bill.

This next decade will be big for people working in the subsector of abandonment. There is certainly no shortage of Orphan Wells


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