ATCHAFALAYA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, La. — Stacks of valves, networks of pipes and hulking, two-story-tall tanks litter parts of the swampy landscape of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, rusting relics of sites where oil wells were drilled in the 1970s, an unwanted legacy of the energy industry that has long helped drive the Louisiana economy.
They are among an estimated 2 million unplugged U.S. “ orphan wells,” abandoned by the companies that drilled them. There are more than 4,500 such wells in Louisiana, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The owners can’t be found, have gone out of business or otherwise can’t be made to pay in a state where there are decades-long political debates involving legislation and litigation over the environmental effects of oil and gas drilling.
The Biden administration plans to tackle the problem nationally with $4.7 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in late 2021. Administration officials joined their state counterparts in the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge recently to tout the efforts.
“The state and federal government, we are left to clean them up because of the hazard they present,” Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. She was visiting what is known as the B-5 well site with Thomas Harris, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources., and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet.
The abandoned wells can leak oilfield brine and cancer-causing chemicals that are components of crude oil, such as benzene. They also can emit methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
In the south Louisiana wetlands, where salty water can exacerbate the deterioration, defunct wells threaten the environmental health of an area that is home to an abundance of wildlife: numerous species of migratory fowl; deer, beaver, bears and a variety of other mammals; the once-endangered alligator among many other reptiles. Coastal wetlands also act as nurseries for Gulf of Mexico crabs, shrimp and other fish species.
Williams’ agency last year announced it had received more than $13 million of infrastructure bill money to remediate 175 orphaned wells on six national wildlife refuges in Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Montoucet said the infusion of money to help plug the wells is welcome, but he also pointed to the need for greater oversight by the state.
“With this new injection of money and addressing the issue that we have, I think we’re on the right path,” Montoucet said. “And from now on, when people come for applications to drill, certainly we’re going to have more regulations in place to ensure that these sites are not left like this.”
McGill reported from New Orleans.