Who Has the Heart to Adopt this Orphan Oil Well?
As I browsed my BBC app a few weeks ago, I ran into this article about environmental contamination of oil wells in the UK, which were left to their own devices. The article explains that a lack of data and proper data management is causing major issues for gas and oil companies. In fact, researchers found no data for more than 2,000 inactive wells, many of which have been abandoned or “orphaned”(sealed and covered up). I started to scratch my head imagining what this problem looks like in places like Brazil, Nigeria, Malaysia, Angola and the Middle East. In these countries and regions, regulatory oversight is, on average, a bit less regulated.
On top of that, please excuse my cynicism here, but an “Orphan” well is just as ridiculous a concept as a “Dry” well. A hole without liquid inside is not a well but – you guessed it – a hole. Also, every well has a “Parent”, meaning
- The person or company who drilled it
- A land owner who will get paid from its production and allowed the operation (otherwise it would be illegal)
- A financier who fronted the equipment and research cost
- A regulator, who is charged with overseeing the reservoir’s exploration
Let the “hydrocarbon family court judge” decide whose problem this orphan is with well founded information- no pun intended. After all, this “domestic disturbance” is typically just as well documented as any police “house call”, when you hear screams from next door. Similarly, one would expect that when (exploratory) wells are abandoned and improperly capped or completed, there is a long track record about financial or operational troubles at the involved parties. Apparently I was wrong. Nobody seems to have a record of where the well actually was on the surface, let alone subsurface, to determine perforation risks in itself or from an actively managed bore nearby.
This reminds me of a meeting with an Asian NOC’s PMU IT staff, who vigorously disagreed with every other department on the reality on the ground versus at group level. The PMU folks insisted on having fixed all wells’ key attributes:
- Knowing how many wells and bores they had across the globe and all types of commercial models including joint ventures
- Where they were and are today
- What their technical characteristics were and currently are
The other departments, from finance to strategy, clearly indicated that 10,000 wells across the globe currently being “mastered” with (at least initially) cheap internal band aid fixes has a margin of error of up to 10%. So much for long term TCO. After reading this BBC article, this internal disagreement made even more sense.
If this chasm does not make a case for proper mastering of key operational entities, like wells, I don’t know what does. It also begs the question how any operation with potentially very negative long term effects can have no legally culpable party being capture in some sort of, dare I say, master register. Isn’t this the sign of “rule of law” governing an advanced nation, e.g. having a land register, building permits, wills, etc.?
I rest my case, your honor. May the garden ferries forgive us for spoiling their perfectly manicured lawn. With more fracking and public scrutiny on the horizon, maybe regulators need to establish their own “trusted” well master file, rather than rely on oil firms’ data dumps. After all, the next downhole location may be just a foot away from perforating one of these “orphans” setting your kitchen sink faucet on fire.
Do you think another push for local government to establish “well registries” like they did ten years ago for national IDs, is in order?
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