A New Threat to Our Drinking Water: Old Abandoned Gas Wells


Some truly stunning news about dangers associated with the ballooning number of abandoned natural gas wells is making the rounds. From the Pulitzer-winning ProPublica investigative team we learn that “…in the last 150 years, prospectors and energy companies have drilled as many as 12 million holes across the U.S. in search of oil and gas. Many were plugged after they dried up. But hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and forgotten, often leaving no records of their existence.”

Meanwhile, the same federal government that has exempted the fracking process from clean water laws since 2005 has known that abandoned wells can exacerbate groundwater-contamination issues. ProPublica reports that “…in an internal briefing last year, EPA scientists raised concern that fracking near Pennsylvania’s many abandoned wells could threaten groundwater, saying the old wells ‘may present a risk unique to the hydrofrac process.’ ”

Even to the layman, the danger is obvious. Abandoned wells, according to the ProPublica report, “…can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface…new wells sometimes disturb layers of rock and dirt near fragile old wells, leading to new cases of contamination.”

The ProPublica piece does well in laying out a bit of the background:

…the EPA’s 2004 study of hydraulic fracturing [the one used to justify the exemption] examined groundwater contamination in the San Juan Basin in Colorado. The report said state authorities suspected that gas migration into water wells and buildings was due, at least in part, to the presence of abandoned wells…some regulators are concerned that fracking, which is used in most new wells, increases the possibility that old wells will be damaged or disturbed…

If you think this is the kind of damaging information that leads the EPA to appease the public (and buy time) by announcing more research and studies on the problems, you are, of course, correct.

I would point out a similarity between this emerging contamination issue and other energy-extraction issues: The gap between research and action. It becomes clear when you look at EPA policy (and NOAA and the others), that the professional staff often knows what they’re doing, but the top officials at these agencies are so bogged down in the politics of matters that information is frequently suppressed and spun beyond recognition. Let’s remember that the famous NOAA “vast majority of the oil is gone” report was all spin – the actual research more or less contradicted that politically induced lapse of reason.

Here’s the ProPublica report via the Post-Gazette newspaper: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11094/1136832-84.stm#ixzz1IYF3EZ1M

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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