Home » Earth Matters: Shell oil makes another $10 billion profit; 14,000 ‘orphan’ oil wells need plugging

Earth Matters: Shell oil makes another $10 billion profit; 14,000 ‘orphan’ oil wells need plugging

That’s not all. In another study in 1989, Shell researchers discussed population displacement from global warming:

‘The potential refugee problem […] could be unprecedented. Africans would push into Europe, Chinese into the Soviet Union, Latins into the United States, Indonesians into Australia. Boundaries would count for little – overwhelmed by the numbers. Conflicts would abound. Civilisation could prove a fragile thing.’

What also has emerged only now: Shell was able to draw these conclusions because it already started acquiring extensive and structural scientific knowledge on climate change a full fifty years ago.

Or even longer ago than that, as Matthew Green wrote in March at DeSmog:

Shell’s knowledge of the risks posed by the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels can be traced to at least the early 1960s.

In 1962, Shell’s chief geologist, Houston-based Marion King Hubbert, produced a book-length report on energy for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that explicitly warned of the risks human-induced global warming could pose to earth’s weather and “ecological balances,” the U.S.-based Center for International Environmental Law has reported.

Decades later, Shell engaged in policy obstructionism and joined climate science denial groups such as the Global Climate Coalition, a propaganda operation run under the auspices of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Since 2017 when some California cities sued oil companies over consumer protection violations, there has been a string of lawsuits in 20 states arguing that oil and gas companies must be held accountable for soft-pedaling harmful impacts from fossil fuels and doing everything they could to stall government action on climate change, including lying and paying others to lie on the subject.

The defendants in many of those suits are the same, not just Shell, but also Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, and the lobbying American Petroleum Institute. A key element their defense teams have raised is the claim that the courts aren’t the proper venue to deal with the issue.

Sixty years after Shell got its first clues about the reality of global warming, only numbskulls and malicious actors—149 of them in Congress—are still claiming human-caused climate crisis isn’t happening. Unaccountable Shell is still raking in billions while making matters worse.



Since Edwin Drake drilled 70 feet into a Pennsylvania sandstone near Titusville and struck oil in the first-ever commercial well, millions more wells have been drilled from California to the Gulfstream waters. Although many are temporarily idled when low oil prices make them uneconomic to operate, then returned to production when prices rise, others are permanently abandoned but not properly decommissioned even though, by law, they are required to be plugged and capped. Unsealed wells leak the potent greenhouse gas methane and air toxics, they can contaminate groundwater, and they generate many negative health impacts. Orphan wells they’re called. The exact count is unknown.

Offshore oil platform

Researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund and McGill University published an analysis last year of more than 120,000 documented orphan wells in 30 states. They found that 14 million people live within a mile of an orphan well, including 1.3 million adults with asthma. But they note that this is just a fraction of the estimated total, much of which is undocumented.

That makes it tough to get a solid count. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission puts the number of undocumented orphan wells at between 310,000 and 800,000. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that, as of 2018, there were about 2.1 million unplugged, unsealed wells not in production. Because of poor record keeping from the early decades of oil production until the mid-20th century, many of these wells are unmapped by state or federal agencies. The EPA estimates that methane emissions from inactive, unplugged wells generate the carbon dioxide equivalent of 7-20 million metric tons a year, the leaks accounting for nearly 3% of the annual U.S. total.

The cost of plugging and capping a land-based orphan well currently averages around $75,000, although in some instances it can rise to a million dollars. When a company still owns a well that is no longer producing, it has to pay those costs. But many companies declare bankruptcy to avoid this. This doesn’t work when it comes to federal leases. If the owning company goes bankrupt, all the previous owners have to split the plugging costs. To plug and cap abandoned wells not on federally leased land, the Biden administration included $4.7 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act.

A new study this week found that there are 14,000 orphan wells mostly in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Estimated cost to plug them: $30 billion. Fortunately, of the total, 87% are owned by one of the major oil companies, and they will have to pay the tab.

As John Timmer at Ars Technica reports, the average cost to plug offshore wells is a good deal more than for those on land. For the wells in shallow water—85% of them—the average cost of plugging is $660,000 for each foot of water they’re in. Total liability is estimated at $7.6 billion. But the average for deep-water wells is more than $1 million for each foot of water. For the inactive deep-water wells among the 1,600 in the gulf, that brings the total cost to $30 billion. 

Of course, if these are orphan wells where the responsibility belongs to a long-vanished company, actually getting them capped could be difficult. But, given the federal rules on liability, things are not that bad. The researchers say that 87 percent of the offshore wells were owned by one of the major oil companies (like Exxon and Chevron); Exxon could have paid for capping every single inactive well last year and still had a profit of over $80 billion.

That, however, raises a very obvious question: If the wells are legally required to be capped, and the companies can easily afford to cap them, why aren’t they? One explanation is that, while the supermajors could eventually end up on the hook due to past ownership, they are not the present owners, and those present owners may not be as well-positioned financially to pay for decommissioning. Another possibility is that compelling anyone to follow these rules requires the federal government to enforce them, and its willingness to do so likely changes depending on which administration is running things.


  • The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which comprises some 2,400 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service, are making known their support for the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument in a letter to President Joe Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and Brenda Mallory, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.
  • 10 Ways to Stop Being a Water Waster
  • The Climate Action Tracker follows government climate actions and measures these against the globally agreed Paris Agreement objective of “holding warming well below 2°C [3.6°F], and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C [2.7°F].” A collaboration of two organizations, Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, the tracker has been providing this independent analysis to policymakers since 2009. The tracker quantifies and evaluates climate change mitigation targets, policies, and action. It also aggregates country action to the global level, determining likely temperature increases during the 21st century using the MAGICC climate model. The tracker further develops sectoral analysis to illustrate required pathways for meeting the global temperature goals. Here’s the bottom line on what it says about current U.S. climate policy:


Ilmi Granoff

The Tragedy on the Financial Horizon is Closer Than You Think. By Ilmi Granoff at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. In September 2015, then Bank of England Governor Mark Carney gave a landmark speech on the “Tragedy of the Horizon.” The concept was simple: climate change creates tremendous risk for financial markets, but these mounting risks are ignored by investors due to the market’s tendency towards myopia. […] Too much focus on the very long term has provided easy excuses for corporate inaction. For example, the greater uncertainty of the distant future, 30, 50, or 75 years on provides a handy defense for firms seeking to justify business as usual. Firms in the real economy can avoid course correction now by imagining technological rescue in the distant future. Financial institutions, in turn, can claim that their investment and financing portfolios will shift dynamically as the real economy changes and thus avoid any risk. Each is effectively saying: “The transition may be happening, but it’s less directly relevant to business today.”  Perhaps also implicit, risks that crystalize mid-century and beyond are also well beyond the careers of senior management in today’s market: “The transition may be happening, but it’s not on my watch.” This ignores the presence of climate risks entirely material to the balance sheets of today’s firms in the real economy, portfolios of financial institutions, and careers of those who manage each. If the economy is decarbonizing, as it appears to be doing, it is well within the lifetime of assets being planned now and the career risk of those planning it. The market “tragedy of the horizon” is more like a decade out. The “tragedy of the tragedy of the horizon” is that, between the short-termism of the market, and the long-termism of climate modeling, entirely priceable risks of the medium-term remain poorly scrutinized.

Why New York’s Congestion Pricing Plan Getting Federal Approval Is a Win for Climate Change. By Kristopher Tigue at Inside Climate News. Federal officials last week greenlit New York’s congestion pricing plan, allowing the state to move forward with its proposal to charge drivers a fee to enter certain parts of Manhattan in an effort to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and boost public transportation. If successfully implemented, New York would become the first state to impose such a toll, potentially laying out a blueprint for other states or cities that want to reduce tailpipe emissions and raise funds for programs that help address climate change and other environmental issues. State lawmakers had approved New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s congestion pricing plan back in 2019. Proponents said the plan would raise $1 billion every year for public transportation. But the proposal was delayed for years by the Trump administration, which had been butting heads with then Gov. Andew Cuomo and was able to intervene because the project would place tolls on highways that received federal funding. The Biden administration has since agreed to review the proposal. And on Friday, the Federal Highway Administration released its draft assessment, finding the project would have “no significant impact” on the environment. The proposal will now be open to public comment for 30 days.

Thea RioFrancos
Thea RioFrancos

The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem. By Amy Westervelt at The Intercept. In 2019, Thea RioFrancos was splitting her time between researching the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile and organizing for a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. A political science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate and Community Project, Riofrancos was struck by the contrast: Lithium is essential to the batteries that make electric vehicles and renewable energy work, but mining inflicts its own environmental damage. “Here I am in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, seeing these mining-related harms, and then there I go in the U.S. advocating for a rapid transition. How do I align these two goals?” Riofrancos said. “And is there a way to have a less extractive energy transition?” When she went looking for research that would help answer that question, she found none, at least not for the transportation sector, which was her area of focus. “I saw forecast after forecast that assumed basically a binary of the future,” she said. “Either we stay with the fossil fuel status quo and the existential crisis that that is causing for the planet and all of its people. Or we transition to an electrified, renewably powered future, but that doesn’t really change anything about how these sectors or economic activities are organized.” Riofrancos wanted to look at multiple ways to design an electrified future and understand what the costs and impacts of different scenarios might be. So she linked up with other Climate and Community Project researchers and put together a report mapping out four potential pathways to electrification for the transportation sector. Titled “Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility and Less Mining,”

People Are Mad About the Willow Project for the Wrong Reason. By Liza Featherstone at The New Republic. Due partly to his championing of historic climate legislation, Joe Biden has been hailed as the best environmental president since Richard Nixon (a low bar, you might think, but hear me out). Not just this environmental legacy but also Biden’s political future, however, are now in peril: Since his administration’s approval in March of the Willow Project, an $8 billion oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska, Biden’s ratings among key allies seems to have fallen, with many young voters, per a recent New York Times piece, feeling “angry” and “betrayed.” Is that fair? Yes and no—because there are two contradictory truths at work when it comes to Willow. First, those outraged over this specific decision, claiming it reverses the administration’s prior successes, are vastly overstating Willow’s impact, and not giving Biden enough credit for his environmental accomplishments thus far. But on the other hand, the Willow approval is in line with Biden’s approach to drilling in general, which is much worse than most people realize.

Is the Electric Car a ‘Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing’? A podcast interview conducted by Kea Wilson at Streetsblog with Agnieszka Stefaniec, co-author of the new paper “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Exposing the Structural Violence of Private Electric Automobility.” An excerpt: 

Kea Wilson: Tell me about the genesis of this paper and how it got this extremely incendiary title that maybe some of our readers are going to be a little bit challenged by 

Agnieszka Stefaniec: I agree, absolutely; the paper is controversial. We’ve got a lot of media attention. And many of the comments were very critical … but it’s not that we can’t answer them. It’s that sometimes, we are a bit disappointed that people do not read the paper. I guess our inspiration was [just] the realities of car-centric society. We live in the city which is car-oriented, we are pedestrians, we don’t have a car, we use the public transport to get around. And we also do research related to transport and climate change. And we found the solution of electrifying the private vehicles have lots of flaws, and lots of negative externalities, even though it is claimed as a silver bullet to reduce emissions and to improve our lives. We found that there is a growing body of research that explores these flaws, and we gathered all of these different ideas in one paper, adding also a concept of an “EV bubble.” Because many people are not aware of the externalities that are created by EVs, or how they [deepen] structures of violence.

Vero Bourg-Meyer of the Clean Energy States Alliance
Vero Bourg-Meyer of the Clean Energy States Alliance

Getting rooftop solar onto low- and middle-income housing. By David Roberts at Volts. Roberts has a conversation with Vero Bourg-Meyer of the Clean Energy States Alliance. (You can read the transcript or listen to the podcast). For all its explosive growth in recent years, rooftop solar is far less frequently installed by low- and middle-income households than by wealthy ones. Though that disparity is diminishing somewhat over time, it remains large.The barriers keeping lower-income consumers from solar go well beyond the financial (though financial barriers are substantial), ranging from credit histories to low-quality and poorly insulated buildings to lack of supportive policy. State policymakers, foundations, and non-profit groups have been trying for years to overcome this problem. Finally, the pieces are beginning to fall in place and it is becoming clearer which kinds of interventions work and which kinds don’t. No one knows more about the history, design, and successes of these programs than Vero Bourg-Meyer of the Clean Energy States Alliance. She has been analyzing and advocating for these policies for years (she just came out with a report on how foundations can help), so I was eager to talk to her about the rationale for low-income solar programs, the features that make them work, what’s in the Inflation Reduction Act that can help, and what further policies are needed.




Dead seal found on Maine coast ...
A dead seal found on the Maine coast. 

Avian Flu Outbreaks in Marine Mammals Mark New Era for Deadly Virus. By Andrew S. Lewis at Yale Environment 360. Several recent cases of H5N1 avian flu around the world illustrate how little is known about the deadly virus in marine mammals. By the end of 2022, the variant was circulating widely in South America but especially in Peru, where the death toll of wild birds eventually reached 50,000, according to some researchers. Then, from January through February of this year, more than 3,000 sea lions fell sick and died. On Isla San Gallán alone, 1,112 individuals, many of them pregnant females, perished. Many of the sea lions necropsied tested positive for H5N1. Because of the high number of deaths in such a short time, and with studies suggesting the virus had spread between minks in Spain, researchers concluded, “we cannot rule out that the virus has adapted to mammals and that sea lion-sea lion transmission has begun in Peru.” […] Such an escalation in H5N1’s virality in mammals would mark a frightening new chapter in the evolution of avian influenza, and scientists like biologist Nichola Hill and Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, reiterate that the evidence still isn’t there. 

A Climate-Smart Farm Bill Can Save Lives. By Eve Andrews at Ambrook Research. The climate crisis has made farm work more dangerous and precarious. In the U.S., at least 384 farm workers died of heat-related causes between 2010 and 2020, according to a 2021 investigation by NPR and the Columbia Journalism School. The number of days in which extreme heat poses a risk to field laborers’ physical safety is expected to nearly double by 2050. Extreme heat, wildfires, and floods also endanger farmworkers’ livelihoods. In California, an unusually wet and cold winter has left fields soaking and frost-ridden, leaving workers with little option but to wait for conditions to improve without pay and farmers with less income to pay them. A 2021 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that outdoor workers in the U.S. risk losing a collective $55.4 billion in earnings each year to climate-related extreme heat. But advocates say the 2023 Farm Bill, legislation that determines how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes billions of dollars over the next five years, is an opportunity to bring life and livelihood-saving protections to these workers. The USDA does not have the jurisdiction to create or enforce traditional labor protections, but advocates say it can create conditions that might make it easier for workers to turn down dangerous jobs.

Farm work has always been dangerous. Policy changes can make it less so.

‘Devastating’ fungal infections wiping out crops and threatening global food security, experts warn. By Louise Vennells at the University of Exeter. Worldwide, growers lose 10-23% of their crops to fungal infection each year, despite widespread use of antifungals. An additional 10-20% is lost post harvest . In a commentary in Nature, academics predict those figures will worsen as global warming means fungal infections are steadily moving polewards, meaning more countries are likely to see a higher prevalence of fungal infections damaging harvests. Growers have already reported wheat stem rust infections—which normally occur in the tropics—in Ireland and England. The experts also warn that tolerance to higher temperatures in fungi could increase the likelihood of opportunistic soil-dwelling pathogens to hop hosts, and infect animals or humans. Professor Sarah Gurr, chairwoman in Food Security at the University of Exeter, co-authored the report. She said fungi had recently attracted attention through popular hit TV show “The Last of Us,” in which fungi take over human brains. She said: “While the storyline is science fiction, we are warning that we could see a global health catastrophe caused by the rapid global spread of fungal infections as they develop increasing resistance in a warming world. The imminent threat here is not about ‘zombies,’ but about global starvation.”

Colombian farmers turn deforested land into sustainable Amazonian farms. By Antonio José Paz Cardona at Mongabay. More than 450 families from seven towns in the south of Caquetá, Colombia, have transformed their farms into spaces for soil, forest and water conservation while pursuing agricultural production projects that give them food sovereignty. Most of the people living in the Amazonian foothills of Caquetá were displaced by the armed conflict and colonized the region through the extensive livestock projects promoted by the government. Amazonian Farms (Finca Amazónica) was created 17 years ago to provide sustainable production alternatives, and many of the program’s trainers are farmers from the region who understand the importance of living in harmony with the forest.

Petrolina Gutiérrez
Petrolina Gutiérrez

‘A Cry For Help’: Federal Agency Eyes A New Kind Of Leasing To Safeguard Public Lands. By Chris D’Angelo at Huffpost Green. For decades, the federal government has incentivized drilling, mining, logging and livestock grazing on America’s public lands via antiquated laws and leasing programs dating back as far as the late 1800s. Never has there been a similar system for acquiring public lands in order to protect them, rather than exploit them. That could soon change. The Bureau of Land Management unveiled a draft rule late last month that would place conservation “on equal footing” with energy development and other traditional uses — a proposal that seeks to confront the agency’s long record of prioritizing extraction across the federal estate. A key provision of that rule would grant the BLM, which oversees one-tenth of all land in the United States, the authority to issue “conservation leases” to promote land protection and ecosystem restoration. The rule would be a major shift in federal land management and could help the Biden administration achieve its goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 — better known as 30×30. The U.S. is still a long way from meeting that national conservation target on land: roughly 12% of all U.S. lands are now permanently protected, compared to 23% of waters, according to federal data.

Water Theft Proves Lucrative in a Dangerously Dry World. By James Attwood, Max de Haldevang and Kim Chipman at Bloomberg Green. They learned the hard way not to drive out alone. Officials inspecting water theft in Monterrey, Mexico, started going out in convoys of three or four cars accompanied by police because others before them had been pelted with stones or had their cars surrounded. Once, one of them was briefly taken hostage. Those kinds of threats were not what Erika Flores expected when she became an environmental regulation inspector in the country’s business capital. But when her role turned to tracking down and enforcing water theft during a drought-induced crisis last summer, Flores’ job grew increasingly dangerous. […] Mexico is not alone. Water theft on a monumental scale has decimated national park lagoons in Spain and threatened to bankrupt farmers in Chile. In California, the illicit cannabis industry manages to get as much water as it needs while residents for years have faced high fines — and public shaming — for violating strict use limits. Illegal water theft even ensnared a former mayor in Brazil.


Yet another problem with recycling: It spews microplastics Colombia’s Women-Led Electric Bus Fleet Is Reshaping Bogotá’s Public Transit Farm Bill Funding for Indigenous Food Producers Needs a Boost  Student-Led “End Fossil—Occupy!” Protests Shut Down Schools In Europe  US support for nuclear power soars to highest level in a decade  Microbes discovered that can digest plastics at low temperaturesAt U.N. forum, Indigenous leaders say colonialism and market forces are destroying the planet In the Florida Panhandle, a Black Community’s Progress Is Threatened by a Proposed Liquified Natural Gas Plant • Crab populations are crashing. Could losing their sense of smell be one of the important reasons why? • In India, A Nuanced View of How Elephants Make Decisions • The nationalist dark side of Joe Biden’s climate policies