Upcycling Infrastructure: The Answer to Our Oil and Gas Woes
by Sarah Douglas, Mechanical Systems Engineer at Renewell Energy
Many people are familiar with upcycling — whether they recognize it or not. If you’ve eaten funky-looking produce from an Imperfect Foods subscription, tied the shoelaces on your Allbirds, or like my dad, have an obsession with building a shipping container house when you retire, you’ve participated in — or dreamed about — upcycling. Upcycling is all about taking a product that’s at the end of its life and adapting it to be used in a new, more valuable way.
We often see the process of upcycling applied to consumer goods — and for good reason. The small size and relatively lightweight nature of items in the food and fashion industries make them prime contenders for redistribution. The rise of the “conscious consumer” has made the perception of sustainability a primary goal for many consumer-facing companies, which further incentivizes creative upcycling within consumer verticals.
But what if we took the principles of upcycling beyond consumer-facing products? What if we attempted to upcycle the very infrastructure of what is arguably the dirtiest industry in the United States: oil and gas?
The oil and gas industry might not seem like the easiest sector to decarbonize. In fact, it’s probably the hardest. O&G is the OG when it comes to emissions — both directly and indirectly accounting for 42% of global greenhouse gas emissions and continuing to grow its GHG emission share annually.
However, just like fashion and food, O&G is rife with material at the end of its life.
Since the mid-1800s, the U.S. has vertically drilled wells into reservoirs to extract crude oil. The process is simple: drill a narrow, often mile-or-more-deep hole in the ground and line it with casing. Employ adjacent electrical infrastructure and a pump jack to aid in the flow of oil to the surface. Rinse and repeat for the next five to 20 years until the reservoir is depleted.
There’s one step that’s often missing from this lifecycle: cleaning up the wells once they’re no longer in use.
In the United States, there are 2.15 million idle oil wells — more than twice the number of currently active oil wells. An idle oil well is a company-owned well that hasn’t yet been cleaned up, hasn’t been used to produce oil in at least two years, and will likely never be used to produce oil again. In essence, idle oil wells are in “purgatory” — past their useful lifespan, but waiting, sometimes for decades, to be fully buried. That burial process is called plug and abandonment — a procedure in which the well is filled with cement plugs, the external O&G infrastructure, such as the pump jack, is removed, and the surface environment is restored to its “pre-drilling” state.
Unlike traditional upcycling materials, idle wells aren’t just at the end of their life, they’re also a continuing liability. According to research from Amy Townsend-Small, Director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Cincinnati, an estimated 40% of idle oil wells leak methane, and individual well methane emissions range from .2 to 132 grams per hour. This corresponds to 6,900,000 metric tons of CO2e per year — purely from unplugged, unused holes in the ground. Plugging all of these holes tomorrow would be the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the road every year for a lifetime.
But the cost to fully remediate idle wells through plug and abandonment is prohibitive. Decades of evasion within the industry have allowed the number of idle wells to skyrocket. Consequently, if someone were to plug and abandon every idle oil well in the United States tomorrow, they’d be looking at a staggering $182B bill. Convincing a company to go beyond its legal duty — or in some cases, even meet its legal duty — by spending capital on cleanup that could otherwise be spent growing its business is a hard sell. Based on the current yearly plug and abandonment rate, it will take over 100 years to plug and abandon today’s idle wells, not to mention the thousands of new idle wells popping up every year.
While local, state, and federal governments do devote funds to cleaning up wells, they’re facing a problem of their own: orphaned wells. There are hundreds of thousands of unplugged wells with no responsible party that are now “wards of the state.” These orphaned wells pose an expensive distraction, limiting the government’s ability to focus on, or financially assist in idle well cleanup.
It’s clear that if we want to accelerate the rate of idle well remediation, we need to incentivize it. At Renewell Energy, we believe the best way to do that is through infrastructure upcycling.
By upcycling the millions of idle oil wells in the United States into gravitational energy storage systems, Renewell doesn’t just breathe new life into old materials and provide a financial incentive for idle well cleanup, it also strives to convert O&G’s largest liability into renewable energy’s greatest asset.
Interested in upcycling infrastructure? Check out what we’re doing here.
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We have seen cases in TX where naturally occurring radiation remained in O&G piping that was removed and “Upcycled” for reuse in boat docks and other similar uses. Suffice to say it didn’t end well.
It’s a cool idea, but gas wells have pretty small diameters. You’re basically going to have to use lead in your tubing to make this work. You’re also going to need long section of pipe which reduces your height off bottom. You’re also going to need to need to extract all the water from the heel up to counteract the buoyancy forces. One of the saving graces is that you might be able to use some of the bond to do a partial decommissioning. Getting rid of the water will require that you effectively seal the wells. Geothermal wells have much larger diameter and they already produce electricity. May be a good place to start, you could probably come in under an existing contract. Cyrq Energy and Ormat are probably the best orgs to talk to about this.