With more than 4,500 orphan oil wells calling Louisiana home, more than 10 percent were identified in 1994 due mainly to the inability to produce and turn profits. While sitting dormant for nearly 30 years, the potential for methane leakage could become a reality. Hoping to head the problem off, LSU Craft and Hawkins Department of Petroleum Engineering Professor Ipsita Gupta and a team of LSU researchers secured a $3 million grant from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to identify leaking wells and measure their emissions before and after plugging.
“What we’re doing with this project is helping the Department of Natural Resources, who received funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior, to find out which wells are leaking and need to be prioritized for plugging,” said Gupta. “The U.S. Department of the Interior wants states to plug orphan and idle wells because they emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes temperature increase and global warming.”
According to a recent GlobeNewswire press release, other states can utilize drones to measure methane and other gas emissions. Still, Louisiana offers a more challenging landscape with its vast wetland acreage. As a result, the LSU Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences measures each well. The organization’s Chair, Professor Kanchan Maiti, typically measures methane and other gases on the sea floor but indicates the measurement process from in-ground wells is similar with one critical difference.
“When we’re in the ocean, we target a general area to collect samples, and we generally don’t need permission,” said Maiti. “Wells in Louisiana can be on private land, and its not easy to access them.”
Louisiana’s plug and abandonment (P&A) initiative came full circle last year with an initial 25 million grant issued by the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, allowing the state to begin plugging, capping, and reclaiming orphaned wells across the state. Funding would be directed at P&A training and the development of procedures to effectively measure and track groundwater and surface water contamination associated with orphaned wells. Additionally, the state was tasked with contracting an academic study of methane emissions from Louisiana wells to assist in predicting which wells were likely to emit methane.
While applications might vary, Maiti’s team puts flux chambers over wellheads to measure methane link concentrations. By watching a reader, a leak can be identified, and the rate can also be documented. The measurement period typically spans 10 to 50 minutes, but some can only be managed briefly because methane levels potentially exceed the 5 percent lower explosive limit (LEL).
“Those wells are definitely big leakers,” Maiti said. “We’ve already measured quite a few where we had to stop quickly.”
Out of 800 wells measured, Gupta indicated more than 180 are plagued with leaks.
“That is a significant percentage,” said Gupta.
Associate Professor of Research Greg Upton serves as the LSU Center for Energy Studies Interim Executive Director and is studying the socioeconomic influence associated with plugging these orphaned well sites.
“What the Department of Interior wants the states to do is quantify how much methane is coming from these wells in order to say how much methane was reduced with these federal funds,” said Upton. “We’re working with the Department of Natural Resources to not only estimate the cost of plugging all of these wells as the cost data comes in, but also how much methane is coming out of those wells.”
The impact of reducing emissions not only benefits the planet but its inhabitants as well. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition of 2021, a 45 percent reduction in methane emission yields the prevention of 255,000 deaths caused by respiratory and cardiovascular diseases annually. It additionally prevents 775,000 hospital visits related to asthma issues, 73 billion hours of lost time due to heat exposure, and 26 million tons of crop loss.
“This project will be impactful for the people of Louisiana,” said Gupta. “It will not only have an immediate impact on reducing methane emissions from orphan wells, which is an important health, safety, and environmental concern; plugging orphan wells will also be impactful for ongoing and future efforts on carbon dioxide storage as the CO2 will be safely sequestered underground if there are no leaking wells around. It is a win-win for Louisiana’s environment and energy economy.”
Nick Vaccaro is a freelance writer and photographer. In addition to providing technical writing services, he is an HSE consultant in the oil and gas industry with twelve years of experience. Vaccaro also contributes to SHALE Oil and Gas Business Magazine, American Oil and Gas Investor, Oil and Gas Investor, Energies Magazine and Louisiana Sportsman Magazine. He has a BA in photojournalism from Loyola University and resides in the New Orleans area. Vaccaro can be reached at 985-966-0957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.