The REGROW Act will fund the dirty work of sealing off derelict wells that continue to pollute. Also, Asian mopeds are a model for a new style of refueling.

Abandoned oil wells are a big, hidden problem 

Ever since petroleum was discovered at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, in 1859, Americans have been sinking wells all over North America hoping to strike it rich. People all around the country dug holes deep into the earth’s crust in their back yards hoping a geyser would blossom. When nothing came up, they threw a few boards over the opening and went back to their lives. Others actually found oil. They pumped what they could get from the well and then abandoned it when it no longer made them money.

Serious regulation of the oil industry wouldn’t come for nearly another century.

But a century of non-producing well shafts dot the American landscape. There may be millions. And not just in oil fields, but in quiet subdivisions, wooded lots and remote swamps. Estimating their impact is hard, but the Environmental Protection Agency says orphan wells may cause as much damage to the atmosphere each year as five million cars. And these wells have been streaming tons of methane into the atmosphere, unchecked, ever since they were dug.

Methane is really bad for the climate. Really bad. Pound for pound, its impact can be 80 times greater than carbon dioxide. At least 25% of global warming is driven by methane. (1)

Many human-centered sources put methane into the atmosphere, including industry, landfills, fossil fuel mining and agriculture. But one of the most frustrating sources of methane today is these orphan wells, because they serve no purpose.

Oil pollution 

In 2021, Congress set aside $4.7 billion as part of the REGROW Act to help address the orphaned well problem. Few expect that number to be adequate to deal with all the holes that have been dug. Capping each well can take days and cost as much as $30,000, though costs per well can vary a lot. Without detailed records, locating abandoned wells requires lots of footwork and arial observation using high tech equipment. Once one is located, the work crew often has to navigate through swamps or forests with the heavy equipment needed for the job. Aging steel pipes need to be removed, a plug set, then cement poured to fill the hole, which can be miles deep. Finally, after the work is done, the worksite needs to be cleaned and refurbished.

The effort is about more than climate change, though. Poisonous substances like arsenic and benzene often leech into the groundwater from abandoned wells and can persist downstream in many unexpected ways.

A 2021 study by McGill University and the Environmental Defense Fund (3) focused on 120,000 documented wells and found that 14 million people live within a mile of those sites. For those people, the health risks from those substances areis immediate.

The problem extends even into places we’ve come to think of as safe. The National Park Service has identified around 1,800 oil and gas wells in 47 parks around the country. Over two dozen projects are currently in place to mitigate those old wells.

Many of the crews that are taking on the work of capping the abandoned wells are former oil workers that have ridden the boom or bust cycle of the fossil fuel industry for years. They look to have all the steady work they can handle for the foreseeable future.

Woman swapping batteries at a swapping station

Swappable batteries let you go farther

Range anxiety is the number one concern for consumers considering an electric vehicle. They hear stories of not finding a charging station when they need one, or of waiting for hours for a car to charge.

But what if instead of waiting to charge the battery in your vehicle, you simply swapped out the depleted battery for a freshly charged one and went on your way?

For customers of Taiwan-based Gogoro, that’s exactly how it works.

Gogoro operates a network of over 2,000 battery swapping stations across Taiwan, Japan, India, and even France. Its battery packs are compatible with electric mopeds and scooters from Yamaha, PGO, Aeon Motor, and CMC. For a monthly subscription fee equivalent to US $27.80, users can swap out batteries as often as they want, with a monthly maximum of 392 miles. (1) The mopeds are quiet, clean, inexpensive and perfectly suited for the tight streets and close quarters of Asian cities.

Group of Moped riders

The business model is growing. Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki have formed a group create standardized swappable batteries for low-voltage vehicles up to 11kW capacity. They aim to promote the use of swappable batteries as a common standard within Europe and internationally.

Because western car manufacturers have not agreed on a standard battery size or interface, swappable batteries are a technical challenge. Tesla promised a swappable battery for the Model S in 2013, but failed to deliver. Israel-based Better Place proposed a network of swappable batteries for sedans in 2007, but was bankrupt in 2013 after the cost of charging and distribution became apparent.

For Asians in urban settings, two wheels are often enough. In China, around half the population uses mopeds, motorcycles or scooters.(2) In India, 80% of vehicles sold are of the two- wheel variety. Switching to low-cost, quiet electric scooters is a much easier move when the two-wheel infrastructure is already in place.

Still, the U.S. market seems primed for swappable-battery-powered mopeds in certain dense cities. The cost of parking, fueling and maintaining cars in those settings goes up every day, and drivers without a private garage are often forced to pay elevated rates to charge their vehicles at public charging facilities. For many, riding a clean, quiet scooter sounds like a lot more fun.

The Weekly Sunsong

Otis Redding will forever be known for the 1968 posthumous hit Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, but he had a string of hits before dying in a plane crash in 1967. He wrote and recorded the Respect before Aretha Franklin made it hers. This week, we’re celebrating him as we look forward to many wells going dry.