Orson Welles was an entertainment giant. He gave radio "War of the Worlds" and film "Citizen Kane." His name was as well-known in entertainment as J.D. Rockefeller's and J. Paul Getty's were to oil in their time.
He died in 1985, and it's entirely possible he'd never heard the term "orphan well."
A recent article in The Washington Post highlighted a town called Oil City in Louisiana between Texarkana and Shreveport. By "between" we mean that if you've gone to see the Hogs play in the Independence Bowl, you've driven past it.
It's right there among the slow-moving pump jacks raising oil from the stripper wells that dot the northwest Louisiana and south Arkansas landscapes. Among those pump jacks are orphan wells, so named because they have no viable owner.
As The Post put it, they are a "long festering environmental scourge," and 14 million Americans live within a mile of one. Having long ago stopped producing anything of value, they are a threat to our climate, as they produce 3 percent of America's methane emissions. The methane released can cause respiratory issues and can sully drinking water at the local level.
These wells are, in many cases, more than a century old, and the oil industry didn't know what the oil industry didn't know in the early days. And let's face it, we may get some shoddy regulation when we don't know what we don't know.
But that was then and this is now. These days, we're plugging those wells. The challenge in doing so is not in "how" to do it. We know how. It can be difficult and can include fending off "alligators, driving heavy equipment through heavily wooded land," maybe encountering Bigfoot, "removing miles of steel piping, filling straw-like holes with cement, removing the well head," and restoring the associated land, all for the low cost of around $30,000 or more . . . per well.
There are at least 130,000 orphan wells in 30 states across the U.S. that are documented. No telling how many more that aren't.
Now 130,000 is a big number, but it's not as large as the actual number. It's hard to know how many there actually are because, according to The Post, examples of where they have been found are backyards, under thorny thickets in suburban woods, and rising from farmland in Texas, New Mexico, an Amish community in Kentucky, in the Louisiana bayous, and in dense forests in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They're under sidewalks, driveways, houses and apartments buildings--and in at least one Wyoming schoolyard.
What does all of this gloom and doom mean? Opportunity.
In 2021, Arkansas, like other states, received funding to aid in plugging the 200-plus such wells that we know of in the Natural State. The funding is part of a $4.7 billion package distributed nationally. Despite this unprecedented amount of federal funding, by all accounts, it's not enough. However, Capitalism and its son Entrepreneurship work hard to find opportunity. It's not difficult to imagine Arkansas companies capitalizing on this here while seeking work in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and beyond.
Unlike sports, life is not always a zero-sum game. In order to win the Independence Bowl, there has to be a loser. In order to win in business, it doesn't necessarily mean someone has to lose. Because $30,000 times 130,000 wells by our math equals a $3.9 billion industry.
Further, this budding industry will not stop growing for the foreseeable future. "There are wells going into orphan status as we speak," says Jimmy Laurent, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Everyday more orphan wells are created than plugged.
Don't get us wrong. This is not mailbox money. This budding business will require a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But more and more people will get paid for it as time goes on.
Who says you can't do well and do good at the same time?