Lost & Found: Rediscovering Orphan Wells


Mar 02, 2023

Getting Down to Business: Plugging Orphan Wells

In January, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana became the first site to remediate wells under the NPS funding initiative, having reclaimed two of the nine orphaned well sites at the Barataria Preserve, a maze of bayous and waterways.

Forrest Smith, lead petroleum and environmental engineer in the NPS Geologic Resources Division, and NPS personnel work with park staff and state oil and gas organizations on project plans and are contracting with experienced oil field workers to perform the plugging. Smith said several of these Louisiana wells have piping at the water’s edge, and could potentially release toxins into bayou systems if struck by watercraft.

The estimated cost to plug the wells in Louisiana is $100,000/well. Once each well is safely closed, site remediation with native plants allows the ecosystem to re-balance, supporting native wildlife and vegetation.

Under the Radar

The NPS originally estimated in 2019 that there were around 500 wells in need of plugging and remediation, but Smith’s database review revealed more than 2,000 orphan wells in need of plugging on NPS land. Databases often have only basic site information; in many cases, just finding the well is a challenge. One well was located through comments left on a hiking forum. Satellite imagery has also been a valuable tool in confirming the location of wells.

Once located, wells must be inspected, often in the remote, difficult to traverse terrain of our national parks.

Funding the Fix

Although authorities have known about some orphaned wells for decades, funding for plugging and remediation was simply not available. Smith said, “Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds, we can get after nearly 2,000 oil and gas wells in the park system across the country. With the BIL funds, we have been able to get the staff and equipment we need to get these projects done as fast as we can.”

Logistics Challenges

Moving the oil rigs, construction equipment, and crew gear into remote sites to plug a well requires complex logistical maneuvers, which Smith described as “90% planning, 10% execution.”

One orphan well site, on a mesa in Glen Canyon National Recreational Area in Utah, may require helicopter access. Another site, Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, will need airdrops for heavy equipment, while crews will access the site via mule train – the only road to the site washed away over 50 years ago.

On the Horizon

Further BIL-funded well closure projects are planned at Big Thicket National Preserve, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Channel Islands National Park.