Ticking time bombs – What risk do abandoned oil and gas wells pose? | DW Documentary

Ticking time bombs – What risk do abandoned oil and gas wells pose? | DW Documentary

Ticking time bombs – What risk do abandoned oil and gas wells pose? | DW Documentary

The extraction of gas and oil poses a greater threat than previously thought. Leaks at disused drilling sites can trigger an environmental disaster at any time. If toxic substances escape, human lives are at risk.

Oil companies invest little in securing the former boreholes. Environmental activists are among the few on the lookout for this invisible danger: Of the 20 to 30 million former drilling sites worldwide, only a few are regularly and carefully monitored. From the North Sea to the Alsace region in France to the USA, abandoned extraction sites can be silently causing significant harm to both the environment and human health.

Take Bradford, USA: Here, several residents fell ill with mysterious symptoms including hair loss and nosebleeds. Eventually, medical doctor Jeffrey Nordella discovered they were all suffering from chronic benzene exposure caused by methane and crude oil. The substances had escaped over a long period of time from a disused borehole. Elsewhere, gas explosions from leaking production facilities cause enormous damage.

In many countries, oil and gas companies are legally obliged to seal abandoned wells immediately. However, the implementation and monitoring of these regulations is sporadic. Activists and whistleblowers are constantly trying to draw attention to this abuse.

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Video Transcript

It’s a family Town um they have Great Schools it’s safe it’s um it’s close to everything my family is all out there in the area and um we we were Happy the most painful thing is to watch your kids suffer so I had to really dive in there and try to figure out put the puzzles of this mystery Together we turn now to the latest in what’s being called the nation’s biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill today is day 84 of a runaway natural gas leak above Los Angeles that’s emitted more than 150 million pounds of methane we have a history of multiple

Legacies oil and gas might be the largest all over the world we have an enormous number of abandoned oil and gas Wells you have literally millions of Them methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas it seeps unnoticed out of abandoned oil wells and is an environmental Time [Applause] Bomb wow amazing this is very much a scandal uh for 30 years um main has been leaking from these craters wow there’s definitely something happening here and so it’s like a ticking Time Bomb It Gets grow bigger and bigger and bigger over time um and then you know we

Don’t know when that bomb is going to gr go off [Applause] Let’s see we have some remnants [Applause] here the PES BR Basin historically had around 5,000 oil wells today there isn’t a single one that’s still working production stopped in the 1960s the French called this part of the alzas our Texas many of the world’s first refineries were located here today these relics are monitored by the French Bureau of geological and Mining research the brgm I work for the brgm as director of the Eastern region of the Department of

Mining safety we are responsible for monitoring former mining sites on behalf of the state we’re currently monitoring 17 Wells which are showing signs of oil leaks and we need to ensure these leaks don’t impact the local en We’re dealing here with Wells that have been plugged and some of them have begun to leak again due to the way the well head was closed off this well is almost 100 years old it dates back to the 1920s and it’s around 400 m deep it produces

Both water and oil and it’s right in the middle of Farmland so the challenge here is to try to stop oil from leaking out onto the Surface there are 12,500 old wells in France some are monitored others not those that receive little or no attention are called Phantom Wells experts estimate there are as many as 30 million abandoned sites like these were worldwide and 3 million of them are in the us alone they’re barely monitored here

Either I’m an environmental engineer I work for the Department of Energy’s National energy technology laboratory this is one of the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on unexplored topic nothing was known about how much methane could be emitted from an abandoned well I also enjoy um you know you go out

In the field and you’re trying to find the wells it’s like a little bit of a scavenger Hunt a drone carrying a device called a magnetometer is able to detect metal in the undergrowth it’s estimated more than 800,000 abandoned Wells are hidden in the forests of Pennsylvania in this park alone a team found 200 of them virtually none of them were Documented we’re about 2third of the way there oh oh this is very obviously a well that’s right there this one clearly has not been you know filled with anything it’s still got the intact well head so this well was just at some point the operator decided it was no longer were economically

Feasible to keep operating it and they could just walk away without changing it at all really oh let’s see if it’s leaking try to focus a little better so the infrared camera helps us we get a nice picture an image that we can visually see the leak very obvious leak wow definitely

You can see it it looks like smoke coming out so I mean it could be a big leak of methane I would guess this one is a super emitter which is just basically means it’s emitting at a much higher rate than a typical well let’s measure out oh wow that one’s really high

So I’m going to write down the high flow measured between 4 and 8 lers per minute I think sometimes Wells that might be closer to people’s homes if they’re citizens that are that um send complaints to the D about Wells on their property those tend to get uh more Attention the elementary school that I went to as a matter of fact had a well in the front yard really yes when we’d go out on the playground sometimes the well would start uh the pump would start working I am uh reporter and editor at uh the Bradford Era it is difficult to write about the industry because there’s a a very high number of people in this region who are employed in some fashion with the oil industry so the people in the area don’t talk as much about the environmental impacts of drilling or the environmental impacts of abandoned or orphan Wells but in the time that I have worked at the paper I remember three separate houses have exploded and caught fire because of uh natural gas or methane and knowing that there are so many 397 in the city of Bradford abandoned or orphan Wells I was very concerned and

Thinking is this going to keep Happening the house was behind my house about a block away it was breakfast time it was about I don’t know 7:15 7:30 and uh I heard kind of a muffled Noise I ran out the kitchen door out into the yard and I could see the smoke coming up already from the from the house Burning I was a professional fire investigator at the time that this incident occurred our tones uh for the fire department started going off initially I helped fight the fire before I started doing my investigation duties the home order was very upset um but very little medical injuries I’m fire chief of the Bradford

Township Volunteer Fire Department uh there was a couple of sides of the house that was actually um blowed out into the yard there’s windows and glass and screens and blowed out into the yard the investigation went on for months uh and chief Burk house and I uh

Were at the house almost every day for 30 some days uh we drilled holes in the foundation of the basement or in the cement floor and we took air samples every day to check to see if there was any gas still coming up out of there the

Further we we looked into it felt it had to been um some sort of outside source that got into the basement of the house we continued to U search uh for before that um and it was later determined to have been from a banded Wells a short short distance away from the Property after the accident in 2011 Bradford residents tried to just get on with their daily lives what they didn’t know was that methane from other abandoned Wells was still seeping into the Earth until 2019 when another accident happened just a few kilomet Away your local news leader now live from Buffalo this is News 4 at 6 two weeks after that house exploded in the town of alany it’s possible it was caused by methane gas seeping through the ground it was Ronald and uh Betty Joe voles were the couple they lived on I

Believe West Branch Road in alany the people were not home at the time of the explosion if the people had been home they could have easily died the house was blown completely to Pieces Many Wells have been sealed Improperly the monitoring is all too often rare the well structures become dilapidated while oil companies are reluctant to pay repair and maintenance costs the consequences of that have been fatal It’s a mountain so you don’t know what’s beyond that because you can’t see I did not know they had a facility There after the blowout they uh they found I’m going to say 40 Wells maybe that needed to be sealed or or capped and uh cemented and they found that they had 63 Leaks Aliso Canyon was an oil field until the early 1970s when the field was purchased by SoCal Gas and converted into a gas storage facility ss25 was one of about 117 Wells it was originally drilled in 1953 and served as an oil producer until 1973 in 1973 the oil well was converted

To a gas storage well the corroded location suffered an axial rupture the leak was discovered on October 23rd 2015 at 3:15 p.m. by noon October 24th the first kill was attempted the second kill attempt was undertaken on November 13th now it appeared to be a conventional well blow

Up and the well continued to Flow January 21 2016 I smelled the gas in the morning at drop off for Lucas I asked Jessica and she also smelled it my headaches continue including fatigue and feeling disoriented all day September 13 2016 Lucas woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a stomach pain he had diarrhea and had a headache

And felt very nauseous Lucas had a bad day in School kids were having rashes uh like small little I don’t know like almost like blisters or I I can’t even describe it um later on a few months after we started noticing like my hair would fall off I would find Bunches of hair on my pillows so it was Bizarre Deception manipulation and lies so when you do find something that’s bad sweep it under the carpet and that is their whole pattern in practice I’m an MD medical doctor people start complaining of all kinds of unusual symptoms on the Urgent Care side so they’d walk in and complain of a

Headache and a nose bleed or a rash or nausea vomiting diarrhea and they had a combination of all these symptoms which was very unlike people I’ve seen in the prior 25 years that have done this so it was like well what is going on so it kind of raised my [Applause] eyebrows the Vector is a gas it goes through the respiratory route and then it translated to the rest of the body everything gets exposed these people had been exposed uh to an array of toxins even today we don’t know all of the toxins because the Department of Public Health

And the Board of Supervisors failed to file a subpoena to get the list this is a letter I received and other Physicians received from the Department of Public Health and as you can see that they’re requesting here it says avoid performing any toxicological tests these are not recommended or unlikely

Prove useful data for clinical evaluation of patients and so what did you decided to do just the opposite we did a full evaluation on it and had it looked at by a Benzene researcher and he made the statement in an email that this looks like chronic Benzene Exposure they kept saying well it’s just methane but it you know it wasn’t just that later on we found out that crude oil was coming up raining down down on us and uh they knew many victims are bitter about the legal outcome of this environmental disaster the SoCal Gas Company got off

With just an outof Court settlement victims on average received around €30,000 to compensate them for lifechanging injuries in many Cases the residents fight against the oil industry was the meek against the Mighty but one woman has sworn to bring big oil to its knees Rancher Ashley watt wants companies to be forced to face up to their Responsibilities my mar and a businesswoman I really enjoy hurting people who have done me wrong and so Chevron has screwed up my Ranch so now I’m not just finding where else they’ve screwed up on this Ranch I’m finding where they’ve screwed up everywhere my grandmother was born out

Here my mother was born out here like this is my land this is what’s in my blood Chevron made a mess and they should have to clean it Up the wells were drilled long before the ranch owner inherited the land little by little her property has turned into a wasteland today there are more than 130 abandoned Wells scattered over the parcel hey Sarah yeah I’m at the 122 yeah it’s still got like 50

Uh PSI on the back side and then they’ve got a gauge on the long string that’s also at 50 it’s against the rules right okay I’ll take a picture I’ll send to you okay bye so it’s a Chevron well but it hasn’t produced in I don’t know 5

Years 10 years like look there’s grass growing around it um so it hasn’t produced it’s basically abandoned but they haven’t plugged it this gauge should be zero and if it has pressure that’s really really bad that means like something has gone wrong uh I mean 50

Psi is enough to kill somebody um and if you came out here it would it could be like like if this went one day it would be like shooting water and oil up in the air her battle against the company started in June 2021 when an old well suddenly started spewing brackish water

It was spraying salt water and so they had to bring in offices and Rigs and 50 people for weeks and weeks and weeks all around here and had to build this huge facility to get this well plugged the harmful brine had leeched up into the groundwater from normally impenetrable strata deep

Underground the liquid also contained Benzene and other chemical compounds to avoid contamination and poisoning the livestock had to be moved to another Ranch it took the company weeks to get the leak sealed I think it’s finally time to realize like yeah things go wrong with old abandoned Wells and if it’s actually

100% of Wells are going to need to be redone well then you start talking you know tens of billions hundreds of of billions of dollars in liabilities that no one’s considering right now so yeah I think I think they are scared I think if you start thinking that every well you

Drill you’re going to have to plug not one time but five times 10 times over its life yeah that starts to add up to a lot of Money bubbling brackish Springs in a Barren landscape ape those weren’t there 70 years Ago it’s a dead zone there’s never going to be anything that grows there again I mean it’ll be dead Forever and I am the general manager of the middle pacus groundwater Conservation District there’s a big lake Lake of Heavenly Blue in the middle of the dry plains of Texas but it’s an environmental disaster rather than a resort the water is very salty around it are methane and hydrogen

Sulfide H2S or swamp gas a deadly gas often found at oil and gas drilling sites this is the Sloan bler number one this is the Beamer lake whale and you can see it up here about 150 yards uh flowing it’s flowing about 600 gallons a minute uh it’s high in

H2S I am up wind uh and the wind to my backs I feel pretty safe about this distance from here I don’t want to get any closer than this cuz those the the H2S levels that we’ve seen on this well are are lethal if you breathe in if you’re there in the

Breathing space longer than a few minutes you could pass out Tai Edwards has been fighting for more than a decade against the oil industry regulatory agency in Texas the Railroad Commission it is refusing to seal the well saying water is coming out rather than oil so it’s not their remit When it comes to abandoned oil wells it always boils down to one thing it’s expensive the rarro commission goes and plugs a well on the list average cost is $5,000 $6,000 and they can go plug three or 4,000 Wells at $5,000 a piece average cost for Beamer Lake 20 30 40 million

Less than a kilometer from Lake Bower one more well has started to leak posing the threat of another enormous toxic spill in this region more and more abandoned drilling sites are crumbling the locals have even given them a nickname they call them zombie Wells in January 2022 a huge geyser appeared in this part of Texas here too saltwater is gushing out from deep underground these accidents keep happening and problems are piling up along with them threatening an infinite ecological Disaster Raw materials are also being exploited on the Open Seas these drilling sites are aging too look around there are no fishing boats there are no touristic boats they can behave here because no one is watching them and my feeling is that they really want to hide Something This Greenpeace ship has left the port of Hamburg for an expedition of several weeks the mission to find old drill sites and identify potential Leaks I’m the unit head of the ocean Department M within Green Peace Germany and I’m working since 94 for Green Peace in the morning we launched a so-called sidescan Zona a sidescan Zona looks a little bit like a fish and is flying over the seaf Flor and um our

Expert here Jacob is trying now to find structures of the offshore industry on the sea Flor there are 15,000 abandoned wells in the North Sea today the esperansa is scanning the British exploitation sector including for old rig sites of the British company Mobile North Sea the

Sector is one of five the others belong to Denmark Germany the Netherlands and Norway okay starts no I’m a marine biologist and oceans campaigner with Greenpeace in Germany I was doing a small research on the blowout in 1990 and our blowout out is something it must be something here in the UK sector at the height of of abine what I found strange is that they stopped the observation uh more than 22 years now so they just didn’t

Care about it anymore or they said at that time they have the feeling that it’s not any longer dangerous and they have the feeling that the amount of G is so small that they can’t stop the Observation wow amazing wow very good super happy and I’m shocked at the same time you know yeah see that look at this really sad but happy this is really Amazing so we are at the epicenter of this main leag that has been known for 30 years and has very obviously not stopped emitting methane gas which is a very potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere methane is is bubbling up to the surface and being emitted into the

Atmosphere it’s 28 times more harmful than another greenhouse gas CO2 it’s a big Scandal uh let’s be honest I mean uh it takes people decades you know 30 years we’re talking now and no one is taking care and is taking the responsibility uh to close this leak and

To monitor it mobile nor was directly involved in the drilling to this date they have not done anything about this leak and also the British government um that got handed over um let’s say the area or the license uh for drilling there uh it hasn’t done anything about It In the North Sea most of these welds are are abandoned or we dry welds I’m working at the gomma ham Center for ocean research in K GMA is one of the largest Marine institutes in Europe during all the Expeditions we were able to dive down with the robot um

For at three Wells to quantify the methane emissions we see here is a 3D view of the uh top thousand MERS of the seaf Flor in the North Sea the the black lines that you see are the drilled Wells um and um the uh colored um blocks that

You see are the mapped um gas accumulations in these upper thousand M and accidentally they drilled through one of these shallow gas pockets and here at at this with this red blop for example we see that these two Wells these black lines were drilled through this gas accumulation so the the main conclusion

From from our estimates of the methane emissions from abandoned Wells into the north SE is that this is the dominant input of methane we have 20 to maybe 30 kilotons per year of methane getting into the North Sea from these abandoned Wells it wasn’t known because there wasn’t

Anything published so far um but when we talked afterwards to some of the oil and gas companies then it became clear that they actually U Know quite well about that problem yeah in the US Clark Williams Dairy has been keeping a close eye on the oil industry’s strategy regarding old

Wells my job title is energy Finance analyst what motivates me is like being a detective almost when you’re sort of pulling together pieces of information from lots of sources because the industry has been very good at you know delaying or dodging his responsibility for cleanup Since the 1950s oil and gas companies have been required by law to seal abandoned Wells immediately some companies have found a way around that they declare the wells inactive rather than abandoning them Um and I’m going to be looking around in Bakersfield where we are now just to the north of the city there’s a a big oil producing area and these purple dots are all the idle Wells so California uh itself has about 36,000 idle Wells idle Wells are wells that haven’t

Been used for production in at least 2 years production of oil and gas this is from the state’s idle well list if we wanted to we could just you know just for fun we could just take a look and uh and sort them so here’s one

That’s been an idol for 118 years 65 years 62 years 45 years like some of them are have been Idol for longer than I’ve been alive one of the reasons that I’m interested in idle Wells is that they um you know that there’s a a a real

Risk that there’s not going to be enough money left to clean them all up what if this is deliberate and what if certain companies intentionally saw to it that there wasn’t enough money left to properly seal their Wells Clark Williams Dairy has begun to look into the dealings of a multinational called accidental

Petroleum the company originally owned more than 8,000 inactive bore holes in the region but a few years ago the company split and it put all its old Wells under the ownership of another company the California resources Corporation CRC so this one this well is number 301 in section

23 the operator is California resources Corporation so this well hasn’t produced anything for the last 5 years at least according to the the records we have um so you know in theory you know all of these wells will have to be plugged Someday a black ring on the ground surrounds the well but how big is the leak below and when will this well be sealed I think the strategy of the industry has been to some extent in some cases to isolate these low producing wells in companies that don’t have the resources to pay for Cleanup really what the CRC operation is it’s it’s essentially a declining resource it’s has more and more idle wells in its inventory and it’s producing less and less oil so over time you know what I expect to see happen is it’ll have more and more idle Wells fewer and fewer productive Wells bigger

And bigger liability uh and it may eventually not have the resources that it needs to pay for Cleanup more and more housing developments are being built east of Bakersfield a promotional video says it’s a great place ideal for families but do potential buyers know those homes are next to an oil well graveyard and a dangerous one at That the authorities in California have been demanding the old Wells be sealed since 2017 up until that year a company called Sunray worked here let’s go take a look this is bler well 123 owned by Sunray petroleum and if you listen come here listen you can hear something you can

Smell a little something methane’s odorless but I can smell something but do you hear that sound that little hissing sound it’s been idle for years there’s been no activity on it but there’s something going on here you can see there’s just some tape here just some duct [Applause] tape all

Right so I’m actually feeling a little bit sick from that I think I don’t know what’s going On hey Audrey this is Clark after our visit I told some local environmental groups and the state sent out some inspectors to check the state found 21 idle Wells that were leaking methane nine at concentrations that were really high high enough to be potentially explosive so the good news is that the

State has started to plug some of the wells but the bad news I guess is that the problem is a lot more widespread than just that one leaking well that we Found

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