Methane may be less visible than oil spills but it is another serious corollary of fossil fuel extraction. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. According to a 2020 special report by Reuters, millions of abandoned wells are leaking methane. This report indicates that it is difficult if not impossible to hold companies accountable after they fold or sell a well. Across the U.S. the number of abandoned wells has increased by more than 12 percent since 2008 according to the EPA. The spate of fossil fuel industry bankruptcies we are seeing in 2020 is increasing the number of abandoned wells.
These wells not only contribute to climate change and contaminate both groundwater and soil. These orphaned wells are sources of dangerous levels of arsenic, sulfate, benzene and chloride and methane leaks can explode as was evident at a construction site in Marina del Rey, California last year.
In Canada 313,000 abandoned wells emitted 10.1 kilotons of methane in 2018. In the U.S. more than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to an April 14th EPA report. However, the EPA concedes that the actual amount could be as much as 843 kilotons. There is no publicly available data on methane leakage from other large oil producing countries. Reuters estimates that there could be as many as 29 million abandoned wells around the world emitting 2.5 million tons of methane each year. Some of these wells have been leaking methane for a century.
Although bonding can help to provide funding for clean-up efforts, the American Petroleum Institute (API) is actively lobbying on Capitol Hill to kill such bonding requirements. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office the cost of cleaning up all of America’s abandoned wells is somewhere between $60 – $435 billion.
President Obama first proposed methane rules in 2015. After the Porter Ranch methane leak and numerous reports that demonstrate massive methane emissions associated with fracking, the Obama administration formally imposed rules to reign-in these emissions. However, The Trump administration has systematically advocated on behalf of the fossil fuel industry including a failed attempt to kill an Obama-era methane rule. Their loosening of rules and lax oversight have significantly increased the amount of methane in the atmosphere.