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New federal funding aims to plug hundreds of orphan oil wells across the state

Orphaned wells in Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge that will be remediated through funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Orphaned wells in Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge that will be remediated through funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

After decades of exploration – and exploitation — Louisiana is covered with thousands of orphaned well sites that cause a plethora of problems for the environment and communities that live with them. But new funding, including a $12.7 million grant from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was awarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to make a dent in plugging 151 orphaned wells across five national wildlife refuge sites in Louisiana.

The projects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law include the plugging and remediation of 59 sites in the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, seven in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, 11 in the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, six in the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge and 68 in the D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge.

“We're making progress on fixing these legacy pollution issues,” Guthrie said. “They've been sitting out there for years.”

Orphaned wells are oil or gas wells that have been abandoned for long periods of time by fossil fuel companies that are either bankrupt or cannot be identified. Jim Guthrie, a senior adviser for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said many of the orphaned well sites in the state have been abandoned since the first half of the 1900s.

The number of sites currently sits at 4,500 in Louisiana, with the majority of them located near Shreveport and Monroe.

Specifically, these abandoned oil well sites release hydrocarbons, methane and contaminated water. These pollutants often lead to a loss of habitat and cause public safety and health issues, and the continuous emission of the greenhouse gas methane contributes to global warming.

“We saw one today, the previous owner had abandoned it, and the (well’s) retention area has just fallen apart. But there are still pollutants in there. Birds come in, they land and they find out that they landed in a pool of oil and that's terminal for them,” Guthrie said. “Other critters may fall in there or they may eat the birds, and then they're not doing so well either. So it's a domino effect that goes on.”

Currently, oil and gas companies pay a small fee on oil produced in Louisiana to address abandoned wells that roughly amounts to $4 million a year — but the state is unable to keep up with the pace of the new sites coming to even plug up a huge backlog of wells, according to Guthrie.

Louisiana typically plugs 120 to 200 sites a year through the state Oilfield Site Restoration OSR Program. The Oilfield Site Restoration Program typically receives $10 million in funding a year.

Plugging one of these sites is a straightforward process, according to Guthrie. After the pre-plugging assessments determine what needs to be done, contractors will come and clean out the main pipe of the well, create a cement mixture to fill up to ground level and place a cap on it. Then, contractors will cover the well with dirt and revegetate the area with native plants.

Pre-survey testing at an abandoned well site at the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Pre-survey testing at an abandoned well site at the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge.

Remediating usually takes about one or two days at each site and costs around $20,000 to $25,000. Some well sites can take longer and cost more if they are more complex.

“When I say it’s two to five days to plug a well, but you multiply that in Louisiana there would be 4,500 wells right now. So that's a lot of work,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie said that the jobs created to plug up abandoned wells overlap with oil drilling skills, and work to address the environmental harm caused by these sites.

The state also received a grant of $25 million from the Department of Interior in early October to remediate orphaned well sites. Louisiana Department of Natural Resources secretary Tom Harris said that their goal is to see at least double the amount of orphaned well sites be addressed this year.

The state’s grant requires all of the funding to be put into projects within the one year of allocation.

“We have a tight timeline to get a lot of work done in the next year plus, so we wanted to hit the ground running and have contractors ready to get to work on helping deal with our orphaned well sites,” Harris said in a press statement. “That does not solve all of our orphaned well issues, but it gives us some real momentum in our efforts to get that orphaned well population reduced.”

Beyond just plugging oil well sites, the state also aims to put money from the grant for methane and water quality testing and monitoring, identify and address disproportionate impacts to disadvantaged communities from orphaned wells and create jobs to restore oilfield sites.

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.

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