$30 Billion Price Tag: Plugging the Gulf’s Inactive Oil and Gas Wells

$30 Billion Price Tag: Plugging the Gulf’s Inactive Oil and Gas Wells

Table of Content

In this article, we’ll look at the reasons behind the enormous liability of $30 billion to seal the inactive, uncapped oil and gas wells along the US Gulf coast, and discuss the implications of these wells on the environment and the major oil companies responsible for their costs.

Key Takeaways:

  • There are 14,000 inactive, uncapped wells in the Gulf of Mexico region.
  • The estimated cost to permanently plug and abandon these wells is $30 billion.
  • In most cases, major oil companies are responsible for the costs of capping the wells.
  • The complexity and cost of plugging a well increase with the depth of water it’s in.
  • Federal rules on liability ensure that most of the wells are owned by major oil companies.

The Dangers of Uncapped Wells

Uncapped oil and gas wells present numerous hazards to the environment. Materials from these wells do not necessarily cease to flow once the equipment is disconnected and removed. 

Simple hydrocarbons, such as methane, continue to seep out, and microbial life processes them, converting them into carbon dioxide that ultimately enters the atmosphere. 

More complex molecules remain insoluble and contribute to contamination.

Besides hydrocarbons, other contaminants may escape from these wells, including salty brines. If these brines seep out, they can pollute drinking and agricultural water sources by infiltrating sediments. 

Consequently, the consequences of uncapped wells extend beyond hydrocarbon leaks to broader environmental and public health concerns.

Legal Requirements for Capping Wells

By law, oil and gas producers in the US must seal and cap their wells once they are no longer productive. 

Federal lands and waters are subject to regulations that stipulate the expiration of site leases one year after production ceases. 

The operator then has an additional year to plug the well. Although state laws differ in details, they generally follow the same principle: owners must cap wells after a specific period of non-production.

There is, however, a potential risk in these systems. Companies can avoid capping costs by transferring the ownership of the wells to a company that later declares bankruptcy. 

However, this loophole does not apply to federal leases, where liability is distributed among all previous owners if a well’s owner goes bankrupt.

Identifying and Analyzing Inactive Wells

A team of researchers conducted a comprehensive study of oil and gas producers along the Gulf of Mexico coast, covering Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. 

They relied on private company sources and government data to identify the production history of offshore wells and those in coastal areas such as marshes and shallow bodies of water.

Their analysis revealed over 82,000 individual wells, with only 6,500 actively producing. The majority, 64,000, are already capped and retired. 

However, there are over 14,000 wells that are not currently producing and have no permanent cap in place. About 3,500 of these wells have temporary caps. 

Although some of these wells could be revived due to advancements in technology or fluctuations in fossil fuel prices, the likelihood of this happening is slim. 

Researchers found that less than 4% of wells inactive for five years ever return to production.

The Costs of Capping Wells in Shallow and Deep Waters

The complexity and cost of plugging a well increase significantly with the depth of water it is in. Most of the wells, 85% to be precise, are in shallow waters. 

For these wells, the average cost is around $660,000 for each foot of water they are in, bringing the overall liability to $7.6 billion.

However, the minority of deep water wells is where the expenses accumulate. In these cases, the average cost of decommissioning and capping exceeds $1 million per foot of water. 

With approximately 1,600 deep water wells ready for capping, the cost for decommissioning amounts to $35 billion. Focusing solely on the currently inactive wells results in a total cost of about $30 billion.

Liability of Major Oil Companies

The question of who will bear the cost of capping these wells is a critical one. Federal rules on liability indicate that the situation may not be as bleak as it seems. 

Researchers found that 87% of the offshore wells were owned by major oil companies, such as Exxon and Chevron. 

These companies are financially capable of handling the capping costs. For instance, Exxon could have covered the expenses of capping every single inactive well last year and still reported a profit of over $80 billion.

However, this raises a crucial question: if the wells are legally required to be capped and the companies can comfortably afford the costs, why do they remain uncapped? 

One possible explanation is that although the major oil companies may be held responsible due to past ownership, they are not the current owners, and the present owners may not be as financially stable to pay for decommissioning. 

Another possibility is that enforcing these rules requires federal government action, and the willingness to do so might depend on the administration in power.

It is clear that in the majority of cases, major oil companies are responsible for the costs of capping the wells. 

As these companies possess the financial means to handle these expenses, it is crucial to address the reasons behind the wells remaining uncapped. 

This issue highlights the need for stricter enforcement of capping regulations and increased government oversight to protect the environment and public health.


The existence of 14,000 inactive, uncapped oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico region poses substantial environmental and financial risks. 

Capping these wells would cost an estimated $30 billion. Nonetheless, the responsibility for these costs primarily falls on major oil companies like Exxon and Chevron. 

As these corporations can afford to pay for capping, it is essential to determine why these wells have not been sealed and to push for stricter enforcement of regulations and greater government supervision to address the situation effectively.


Written by

Alexander Sterling

Alexander Sterling

Alexander Sterling is a renowned financial writer with over 10 years in the finance sector. With a strong economics background, he simplifies complex financial topics for a wide audience. Alexander contributes to top financial platforms and is working on his first book to promote financial independence.

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Judith Harvey is a seasoned finance editor with over two decades of experience in the financial journalism industry. Her analytical skills and keen insight into market trends quickly made her a sought-after expert in financial reporting.