The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) recently released its latest counts of documented idle and orphan oil and gas wells in the United States and Canada.


“Many idle wells have potential for future oil or gas production or associated uses,” stated IOGCC. “If not properly monitored and maintained, however, they may pose a risk to the environment, public health, and safety.”

Idle wells have not been plugged, nor are they producing, injecting, or otherwise being used for their intended purpose, according to IOGCC. Orphan wells, in contrast, are “idle wells for which the operator is unknown or insolvent,” the Oklahoma City-based multi-state government entity added.

More federal funding is expected to go toward plugging, remediating, and restoring orphan oil and gas well sites. In November President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which the U.S. Department of the Interior said includes $4.7 billion for such activities.

IOGCC noted that IIJA was enacted shortly before publication of its new report, Idle and Orphan Oil and Gas Wells: State and Provincial Regulatory Strategies 2021. It stated the legislation includes money to plug orphan wells on federal, state, private, and tribal lands.

“In most states and provinces, idle wells with no future beneficial use must be plugged,” stated IOGCC, which surveyed 32 member states and five Canadian provinces for the report.

IOGCC said there were 231,287 approved idle wells reported by the states and 140,183 by the provinces at the end of 2020. It stated that operators plugged 62,463 idle wells in the United States and 16,295 in Canada over the three-year span covered in the report.

In the United States, a total of 1,619,071 documented wells have been drilled but not plugged, stated IOGCC. The organization said the total for the Canadian provinces is 372,697.

At the end of 2020, surveyed states reported 92,198 documented orphan wells and provinces reported 5,015 such wells, noted IOGCC. The organization said improved investigation and operator verification efforts resulted in a 50% increase in the number of documented orphan wells from 2018 to 2020. States and provinces plugged 9,774 and 4,930 orphan wells, respectively, during the period.

“In total through 2020, the states have plugged over 78,000 orphan wells and the provinces almost 6,300,” said IOGCC.

The organization said the cost to plug an orphan well “varies widely depending on well depth and condition, location, accessibility, and other factors.”

The average per-well expenditure ranged from $2,400 to $227,000 in 25 states from 2018 through 2020, with an overall three-year average of $25,634, stated IOGCC.

“Most states conduct basic site restoration as part of…orphan well plugging operations,” the group said.

In the three Canadian provinces that plugged orphan wells from 2018 through 2020, the average per-well outlay was C$41,156 ($32,781), which IOGCC derived from a range of C$37,528 to C$42,047 ($29,891 to $33,490).

“These numbers do not include expenditures for site restoration,” IOGCC said of the Canadian figures.

According to IOGCC, the report primarily seeks to “help states and provinces evaluate their idle- and orphan-well programs and identify useful regulatory tools and strategies from other jurisdictions.”