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Methane Leaking From Old Oil Wells

By James Donahue

Methane gas, an even more potent source of climate change than carbon dioxide, has been discovered leaking from hundreds if not thousands of abandoned oil wells all across the nation.

This was the finding in a study by Mary Kang, of Princeton University, who examined abandoned and plugged oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and found all of them to be leaking methane. Some were leaking more than others.

Kang’s report stated that she looked at only a few of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned well heads in her state. Oil wells have been drilled virtually everywhere across the landscape and even under the sea. In my recent trip across the country, we passed through numerous old oil fields where old pumps were still standing idle. A few pumps were still operating. Other well heads appeared plugged and abandoned.

This new finding adds to a growing concern by researchers who say that the melting Arctic ice and the Siberian Tundra also is releasing tons of ancient methane gas which, mixed with the massive buildup of carbon dioxide, is threatening to dramatically increase the heating of the planet and rush us to a point of runaway global warming.

Ecologist Edward Schuur, who was among a team of 41 scientists involved in the Arctic study for the University of Florida, said the permafrost has acted like a meat locker, halting the activity of bacteria in the soil. As the permafrost thaws, however, anaerobic digestion is now going on among all of the frozen plants and animals long buried in the muck. And this creates methane.

Schuur said there is so much material left buried in the ice and frozen ground, and the thawing is occurring so fast, the production of methane is alarming. This is happening in an estimated 11.7 million square miles of a permafrost zone not only in Siberia but also in Alaska and Northern Canada.

The discovery that the old and capped oil wells also are leaking methane only intensifies the problem. Methane is among the most powerful of the greenhouse gases. It also is highly volatile. Thus it is used by our natural gas companies to heat our homes. 

When loose in the atmosphere, methane is colorless and odorless. When the mixture reaches from five to 15 percent the very air can be deadly. It also can cause suffocation or explosions if not detected.