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Undocumented Orphaned Wells Research Program

Photo Credit: PA DEP
Photo Credit: PA DEP

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that was signed in late 2021 directs the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy Carbon Management to implement a research program focused on assisting the Federal land management agencies, States, and Indian Tribes in identifying and characterizing undocumented orphaned wells.  The BIL provides robust investments to plug these undocumented orphaned wells, which will help communities reduce methane emissions and eliminate other environmental impacts. Part of this investment includes $30 million allocated to assist in identifying and characterizing the environmental risks of undocumented orphaned wells. This investment is part of the Administration’s overall response in remediating environmental harms, addressing the legacy pollution that harms communities, creating good-paying jobs, and advancing long overdue environmental justice.

Generally, orphaned wells are defined as an idle well for which the operator is unknown or insolvent.1 It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of undocumented orphaned wells leaking methane in the U.S. with unknown locations and missing information such as ownership or construction details.2 The total estimated number of undocumented orphaned wells reported by states is between 310,000 and 800,000.1

The Undocumented Orphaned Well Program aims to:

  • Find and characterize undocumented orphaned wells, and
  • Determine the physical locations, methane emissions, wellbore integrity, and other environmental impacts of those wells.

To begin developing this program, DOE, in collaboration with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) has created a research consortium that consists of five national laboratories—Los Alamos National Laboratory, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This consortium will leverage institutional knowledge, existing processes, as well as fundamental and applied science expertise to undertake the primary objectives as defined in the BIL, focusing specifically on undocumented orphaned oil and gas wells in multiple basins and plays on private and Federal land across the United States.

Over the next five years, this Program will:

  • Establish a collaborative framework via the consortium,
  • Develop and test technologies and processes in the field,
  • Develop best practices for identification and characterization, and
  • Ultimately deploy these developed technologies at scale.

The technologies developed under this Program will help further the Administration’s emissions reduction goals to cut methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels by 2030.

A workshop was held in April 2022 to kickoff this program. The presentations from this workshop can be found here.

Contact Information:

DOE FECM – Timothy Reinhardt (timothy.reinhardt@hq.doe.gov)
DOE FECM – Jared Ciferno (jared.ciferno@hq.doe.gov)
NETL – Kyle Clark (kyle.clark@netl.doe.gov)