Throughout the once oil rich states of the western U.S., corroded steel skeletons bear mute testimony to the existence of tens of hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands, of abandoned oil wells. Their productivity failing, those wells were plugged with concrete years ago. Or were supposed to have been.
But what’s on top of the landscape is not the problem, other than from an aesthetic point of view. It’s what’s going on beneath the surface of the vastness of these many states. In some areas in the many locales where these decomposing structures exist, these ancient wells are unplugging and leaking dangerous chemicals into the ground, obviously affecting the quality of the underlying water table.
In other words, what we once thought worked absolutely doesn’t.
According to the EPA, there are approximately 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells in our country. Roughly only about one third of those old wells were plugged with cement when they were abandoned. Conversely, the vast majority hasn’t been deactivated properly and plugged at all.
Reportedly, many of those wells are leaking methane. Methane is considered a greenhouse gas. Some wells are known to be leaking benzene, a known cancer-causing agent, into the water tables. There are others, but my space is limited. And yes, the problem could be remedied except for one small problem. Federal regulators are ignorant of the locations of tens of thousands of these decrepit wells because so many of them were drilled long before any type of record-keeping was mandatory.
The problem seems relatively benign on the face of it, but incidents in New Mexico, Colorado and even here in Wyoming have surfaced in recent years. In New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation, abandoned wells were discovered that are oozing a viscous fluid that smells like motor oil. Environmentally dangerous? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’ll go with not helpful to the environment.
Remember the La Brea tar pits in California that have sucked so many animals into its deadly maw over the centuries? Same same, only on a lesser scale. But, in the overall scheme of things, critters like mice, ground-nesting birds or even short-tailed weasels are as important to the environment as, say, the revered California condors.
In Colorado a basement exploded, killing two, reportedly after methane leaking from an abandoned flowline entered the basement of the house and was ignited. And again, right here at home, a news story a couple of years ago told of a rural Wyoming school that had to be shut down due to the presence of high levels of carbon dioxide and benzene that made the children and teachers sick.
My surmise is that if all those leaking wells are making people sick, it’s not a good thing. Although granted, even if not that many people will come into contact with the dangerous gases leaking from the unplugged wells until the problem reaches critical mass, what the hell is that stuff doing to our wildlife? If this crap causes cancer in humans and eventually kills them, why should our deer, antelope or, yes, even our sage grouse be immune to its eventual effects?
Is it possible that the leakage could cause long-term invisible effects among the wildlife? Illnesses or reactions like reduced physical vitality, infertility, abortions among pregnant females, body and organ cancers, bleeding lesions, reduced immune system vitality to common diseases and parasites? Not to mention other obscure but serious problems in the wildlife populations only seen by alert observers or Game and Fish biologists over the past few years, like the poisonous green algae that killed an entire herd of elk down by Saratoga one winter just a couple of years ago. Could that mutant form of algae possibly have been spawned by exposure to chemicals seeping into the ground from an unplugged well, or is that too Jules Verne for the establishment?
We seem to be fighting a losing battle to maintain our wild game herd population numbers these last few decades. Is this a management problem or an environmental one? And who the heck is studying it, if anyone? Are these wells just one more problem we’re going to ignore?
As if our critters didn’t have enough problems like CWD, blue tongue, a multitude of weird diseases and reduced habitats to deal with – are they now suffering silently from an Agent-Orange-type of screwup by multi-national corporate types who are very adept at passing the buck? Similar to the way our Congress has repeatedly denied culpability in murdering thousands of our military warriors with its (the government’s) blatant chemical indiscretions.
Unfortunately, the wild critters don’t have a congressman to aid them in seeking recompense or to alleviate or solve the problem, and they don’t have the help of the V.A. to assist them either.
But then again, speaking as a service member who was sprayed and betrayed, I guess we don’t either. Those military members, most of which were combat veterans serving their country, who were affected and are dying or have already passed, can’t even get a purple heart out of it. I can’t even get my head around that crap. Apparently when the government screws up, killing and/or crippling thousands of their own, they don’t have the cojones to own it.
Hopefully this abandoned well problem will be more suitably addressed than our VA and the US Congress has addressed the Agent Orange problem for our veterans. I’m getting tired of watching friends die or reading about yet another warrior who has passed way too early and way too painfully every time I get my Vietnam veteran’s newsletter.
I hopefully pray that someone will find out how these wells are coming unplugged and go to work to eliminate the problem. A prayer that probably is on par with an ice cubes chance of survival in hell.
Thank you U.S. Veteran’s Affairs, all of the feather merchants running it’s programs and all of the esteemed U.S. Congress. May all of you live long enough to understand your omissions.