First steps taken to address Oklahoma’s long standing orphaned well problem


Oil and natural gas wells require concrete to seal the area between the well casing and the surrounding borehole. (MIT photo)

WASHINGTON – Oklahoma is set to receive a federal grant to begin addressing an orphaned well problem that has plagued the state for decades. Since the discovery of oil in the late 1800s, an estimated 500,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled statewide. 

The Department of the Interior said Oklahoma will receive $25 million to plug an estimated 1,196 orphaned oil and gas wells as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November 2021. That’s less than 10 percent of the 17,865 uncapped wells across the state, according to a 2021 report by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. 

Matt Skinner, director of public information for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, said this is the first round of funding. 

“This is just the first shot of money into the program. We intend to continue our applications as more money becomes available.”

The grant is phase one of a $4.7 billion investment from the federal government to plug orphaned wells across the country.

Oklahoma representatives have sought to mediate this issue through congressional legislation. Frank Lucas and Stephanie Bice introduced the Abandoned Well Remediation Research and Development Act in July of 2021 which would improve data collection of well locations, and advance plugging/environmental remediation efforts. Lucas laid out the challenges and solutions the legislation would tackle.

“In Oklahoma, we have thousands of abandoned wells with an average cost of $40k to $70k to properly close. For some sites, the costs could rise to nearly $1 million. This legislation will help us identify new materials and advanced techniques to find and manage abandoned wells, which will help our environment and our energy sector.”  

The bill was ordered to be amended in January of this year and remains stuck in congress.

In a news release about the grants, the energy department said Oklahoma plans to give priority to “wells that pose the greatest threat to health and human safety, the environment and personal property.”

With the federal funding, the OCC will look broadly at its database of abandoned wells and tackle individual cases based on the categories they fall into. “Purging wells” fall into the category of highest priority as they are wells that are actively leaking salt water, oil and gas into nearby water and soil.

The federal government expects the funding to assist environmental justice communities, which have been disproportionately affected by orphaned wells and tend to have lower income levels. 

Uncapped wells can pose serious threats to the environment and residents of nearby communities. The Department of the Interior lists methane leakage from the wells as a serious contributor to climate change. Methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Catalin Teodoriu, a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s Mewbourne School of Petroleum Engineering, says the primary environmental risk involves the release of uncontrolled fluids into the near vicinity. Such fluids can include anything from remaining oil and gas in the well’s reservoir to saltwater leaking from an unsealed zone.

While the wells present obvious environmental threats, plugging them can be a complicated and expensive process, costing anywhere from $25,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

“Anybody who’s in the business has to plug their wells. And then if we have to come in and plug them, we get the money from them. We will take them to court if needed.”

Penalties assessed against the owners of unplugged wells fall under the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry in the state. 

Under Title 165, made effective by the commission in October 2021, any operator who fails to comply with the requirements for plugging and closure of a well can be fined up to $500. To operate a well in the state, the OCC requires proof of financial net worth of at least $50,000 and a surety to the commission in the amount of $25,000 as an insurance policy that an operator will be capable of plugging a well once it is taken out of service. 

Skinner said Oklahoma’s number of unplugged wells is high for a number of reasons. 

One is a change in plugging standards. Today, wells must be plugged with at least 10 feet of cement or other material approved by the pollution abatement department. From the early 1900s through the 1950s, operators plugged wells with certain types of  “drilling mud,” a clear violation of today’s standards.  While technically plugged, the wells are included in the orphaned well count for a simple reason. 

Additionally, accurate records of wells were not kept throughout Oklahoma’s long drilling history. Wells, some of which were drilled over 100 years ago, often do not have the proper documentation of plugging or ownership. If there is no paperwork reflecting a well has been properly plugged, the corporation commission assumes it hasn’t.

“It’s not a matter of it (the well) is going to purge, but when,” Skinner said, referring to when a well begins to leak salt/drill water, oil or gas. 


Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.  To read more stories by Gaylord News go to