When the production from oil and gas wells drops below levels that make them economically viable to operate or if they develop wellbore issues, the responsible action to take is plug and abandonment (P&A). This operation prevents oil and gas reservoir fluids from migrating up the wellbore and possibly contaminating other formations, fresh water aquifers or both.
The Scope of Abandoned Wells in Pennsylvania
The EPA estimates the nation’s 2 million abandoned wells are the 10th highest source of methane, after sources like agriculture, oil and gas drilling, and landfills. Pennsylvania leads the nation with over 20,000 abandoned wells. Estimates vary regarding the actual number of abandoned wells in the state, home of the world’s first commercial oil well drilled in 1859. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says there are likely 200,000 unaccounted-for wells in Pennsylvania. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, passed in 2021, allocated a record $4.7 billion for plugging oil and gas wells, with Pennsylvania expected to receive $330 million over the next decade. “Our agency is using the state’s first allotment of $23 million from the bill to plug 235 wells this year,” said Rich Negrin, acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “Over the last eight years, it has averaged about 18 wells per year.”
The Plug and Abandonment Process
A well is plugged by setting mechanical or cement plugs in the wellbore at specific intervals to shut off fluid flow. The plugging process usually requires a workover rig and pumping cement into the wellbore. The entire operation can take a week to a month depending on the complexities of the well. Modern regulatory standards in all U.S. jurisdictions require specific provisions for plugging and documenting oil and natural gas wells before they are abandoned. And, while these regulations vary to some degree among states, all state regulations prescribe the depth intervals that must be cemented and the materials that are allowed to be used in plugging operations.
Services Required for Well Plug and Abandonment
P&A requires enlisting technical services to complete a number of operational tasks:
- Preparing the well site for P&A operations by ensuring the well work area is safe. The site is also assessed to ensure safe access and egress, soil condition and stability, contour of terrain, presence of plants, animals, or both, toxic conditions near the well, equipment staging and other risks.
- Removing and salvaging available wellbore casing, tubulars and other equipment.
- After removal of free tubulars, removing stuck tubulars above the cut using fishing tools.
- Placing cement plugs in the borehole and testing to prevent migration of fluids between different formations.
- Cutting upper casing below grade and capping the well before the surface is reclaimed to match the surrounding environment.
And, to conduct these types of operations effectively and efficiently, the P&A service company must field multi-skilled crews capable of performing all required services.
Plants & Goodwin Tapped for Expertise, Input
In February 2023, Plants & Goodwin Chief Operating Officer, Luke Plants, attended a meeting with Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, and the Department of the Interior's Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator, Winnie Stachelberg. The meeting took place in Pittsburgh as a roundtable aimed at discussing the federal funds allocated to Pennsylvania for plugging the state’s abandoned wells and the challenges these wells pose. The inclusion of Mr. Plants as a roundtable attendee was not surprising, as his Pennsylvania-based company offers a comprehensive range of services capable of performing the P&A operational tasks previously mentioned. Beyond his expertise on the technical work required, Mr. Plants has also demonstrated an understanding of the needs oil and gas companies have and those of state agencies. “Exploration and production companies and state governments are facing the same challenge—how to plug wells quickly, safely and inexpensively.”