Editorial Feature

Understanding Orphan Wells and Their Threat to Water Sources

Orphan wells pose significant environmental and health risks, as they can contaminate water sources with toxic substances such as methane, benzene, and other harmful chemicals. This article discusses how orphan wells contaminate water sources and explores the potential for sensor technologies to detect this contamination.

orphan wells, contamination

Image Credit: J.J. Gouin/Shutterstock.com

What are Orphan Wells and How Can They Contaminate Water Sources?

Oil and gas wells that have been abandoned by their owners and left uncapped, known as orphan wells, have the potential to release hazardous substances into surface and groundwater supplies, which can harm the environment and public health. Old orphaned wells may have degraded well casing allowing oil, gas, or salty water to leak into freshwater aquifers and pollute them.

Orphan wells have been a problem for many years in the oil and gas industry, and the number of such wells has been increasing since there are an estimated 2.6 million orphaned wells in the United States alone, with many more scattered around the world.

Methane and Benzene Pollutants

Orphan wells can contaminate water sources through methane leakage since it is a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. It can contaminate drinking water sources causing health problems such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea.

Releasing benzene, a carcinogenic chemical that may cause cancer and other health issues, including anemia and immune system damage, is another way orphan wells can pollute water supplies. Toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene are other dangerous substances that may seep from orphan wells and are all known to damage people's health.

Comparing Traditional Monitoring with Advanced Monitoring via Sensor Technologies

Monitoring orphan wells is essential to avoid contaminated water supplies. For this purpose, traditionally, periodic physical inspections, which can be costly and time-consuming, are now being replaced by advanced sensor technologies that offer new opportunities for monitoring orphan wells more efficiently and effectively.

Sensor technologies provide several benefits over conventional monitoring techniques for orphan wells, including real-time leak detection that enables faster reaction times and more efficient mitigation measures and is affordable and straightforward to install and maintain. Additionally, sensors can be installed in dangerous or difficult-to-reach locations, eliminating the need for physical inspections and lowering the risk to people's health.

Using Methane Sensors

Methane sensors, which can detect methane in the air and act as a sign of well leakage, are a type of sensor technology that might be used to monitor orphan wells. Methane sensors are relatively inexpensive and can be placed strategically around an orphan well site to detect methane and send an alert to the relevant authorities, who can investigate the source of the leak and take appropriate action to prevent further contamination.

Using Chemical, Vibration and Temperature Sensors

Chemical sensors can also be used since they can detect the presence of harmful chemicals in the air or water, which can indicate contamination from a well. For this purpose, chemical sensors can be placed strategically around an orphan well site to detect any leakage of harmful chemicals. Similarly, vibration and temperature sensors can also be utilized for detecting changes in pressure and temperature around wells for potential leak indication.

Recent Studies

Effects of Orphaned Wells on the Ohio River

A recent study published in 2020 discusses the effects of orphaned wells on the Ohio River. Any contaminants entering Ohio make their way to the Mississippi River since it originates in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and runs 981 miles through six states to Illinois before reaching the Mississippi River. The study found orphaned oil and gas wells to be the primary cause of pollution in the Ohio River since many companies when going out of business, leave behind thousands of orphaned and abandoned wells affecting over three million people who get drinking water from the Ohio River.

Water Quality Monitoring System

A system developed in 2019 research for real-time, low-cost water quality monitoring in remote areas, lakes, and rivers can also be used for water quality monitoring in areas with abundant orphaned wells. The system presented in this study consists of a customized buoy, a wireless communication system, a microcontroller, and off-the-shelf electrochemical sensors.

This system makes the acquired data available in graphical and tabular representations through a personalized web-based portal. The experimental results of this study indicate that this system has great potential in water contamination detection and can rapidly access information necessary for making informed decisions.

Challenges of Monitoring Orphan Wells

There are also some challenges associated with using sensor technologies to monitor orphan wells contaminating water sources, including lack of infrastructure in some areas since many orphan wells are located in remote or rural areas, where there may not be reliable power sources or communication networks making it difficult to install and maintain sensors and receive real-time alerts.

The fluctuation of the data produced by sensors, which may be impacted by various elements, including weather, environmental variables, and other noise sources, is another problem in monitoring orphan wells contaminating water sources. Therefore, it is crucial to have reliable algorithms and data analysis techniques to guarantee the accuracy and dependability of the data produced by sensors.

Future Prospects of Orphan Well Contamination Detection

Despite these challenges, the use of sensor technologies to monitor orphan wells is a promising solution for detecting contamination and preventing further environmental and health risks since, as the technology continues to advance and become more affordable, sensor-based monitoring systems will likely become more widespread and effective in detecting and mitigating the risks associated with orphan wells.

References and Further Reading

Alboiu, V., & Walker, T. R. (2019). Pollution, management, and mitigation of idle and orphaned oil and gas wells in Alberta, Canada. Environmental monitoring and assessmentdoi.org/10.1007/s10661-019-7780-x

Demetillo, A. T., Japitana, M. V., & Taboada, E. B. (2019). A system for monitoring water quality in a large aquatic area using wireless sensor network technology. Sustainable Environment Researchdoi.org/10.1186/s42834-019-0009-4

Hicks, C. (2020). Plugging Problems: How States in the Ohio River Basin can Address Orphan Oil and Gas Wells. Kentucky Journal of Equine, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Law. doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3735493

Wright, B. (2021). Hide and seek: The orphan well problem in America. Journal of Petroleum Technologydoi.org/10.2118/0821-0030-JPT

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Taha Khan

Written by

Taha Khan

Taha graduated from HITEC University Taxila with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. During his studies, he worked on several research projects related to Mechanics of Materials, Machine Design, Heat and Mass Transfer, and Robotics. After graduating, Taha worked as a Research Executive for 2 years at an IT company (Immentia). He has also worked as a freelance content creator at Lancerhop. In the meantime, Taha did his NEBOSH IGC certification and expanded his career opportunities.  


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