Did you know there might be an old oil well in your back yard?

So here’s a thing: The oil and gas industry sinks a whole lot of wells in the course of exploring areas that could yield valuable resources. Some of those wells are complete busts, and others crap out, so they cap them and move on. What happens next, though, gets complicated, because there’s a lack of accountability for the industry when it comes to managing wells that are no longer operational. That’s creating some serious problems as people buy or move onto land without being aware that there are abandoned wells underground on the site.

Some wells may be perfectly inert, and could happily exist under there for decades or centuries without much fuss, although people might be startled if they’re digging around and they encounter the hardware associated with the site. The problem is that this isn’t the case for all wells. Some leak methane, which is highly explosive and rather nasty, and others may leak other compounds into the environment — which can in turn pollute the water table, soil, and air. That’s bad news bears anywhere, but particularly on residential property, where environmental standards have to be extremely high.

Which it comes to environmental cleanup, agencies have different designations for rehabilitated land, based on how successful the cleanup turned out to be after being assessed for contaminants. Sometimes, concentrations of contaminants like arsenic, lead, PCBs, and other charmers are so low that it’s made available for what’s known as unrestricted use — you can put whatever you like on there, including residences, because it’s considered to be extremely safe. (Fun fact: Concentrations post-cleanup are sometimes lower than those on regular land that hasn’t been evaluated and targeted for cleanup, so at times, you’re actually more safe on a former contaminated site, thanks to naturally-existing levels of many compounds, as well as undisclosed pollution. Anyway.)

In other instances, the government can enact land use restrictions that attach to deeds and zoning ordinances. For residential use, the government assumes that people are going to spend a lot of time on a given property, and that they may actively interact with soil and water — it needs to be clean enough for, say, people to raise a family there. Kids should be able to chew on dirt in the backyard or whatever without ingesting dangerous levels of toxic compounds.

Restrictions might limit use to industrial, or commercial, or recreational, with fine-grained restrictions between these loose categories. The government does this to protect health and safety and to provide people with information about the kind of land they’re living and working on. But abandoned oil and gas wells aren’t necessarily treated this way, because many of them are extremely old, they aren’t well mapped, and the companies that drilled them are long gone. This isn’t like a former military base, a very large operable unit that can be easily defined. It’s a well here, a well there.

And when those wells start bubbling away with something potentially hazardous, there’s no way of knowing unless someone is testing them. That requires identifying the site, though, and determining who’s responsible for testing it, which isn’t always easy to do. Homeowners who purchase a plot somewhere probably wouldn’t think to have the site evaluated to determine if there’s a well there and search for signs that it’s leaking.

And if it is, what then? If you can’t trace the ownership, or the company that owned it has disappeared through bankruptcies, mergers, and other events, who’s responsible? Cleaning up wells can get costly, and depending on the law, the zoning, and the situation, the homeowner could be on the hook for it, even though the damage is decades old. In instances like developments, the developer can be slapped with the expenses, and may be unable to sell properties until they’re cleared, creating a bottleneck in the development process.

Old oil and gas fields are everywhere, and in some regions of the country, well exploration and development is located quite close to residential neighbourhoods. As people push out thanks to an expanding population, and as oil and gas firms drill more and more wells to meet a thirst for oil, collisions are going to happen at a growing rate. Many states aren’t bothering to monitor drilling practices, let alone keep an eye on older wells to make sure that new developments are built safely — and ‘safely’ is important when you have situations like houses blowing up thanks to methane buildups.

The United States has a long and conflicted history when it comes to oil and gas exploration, paired with cavalier attitudes towards the land. Centuries of resource exploitation post-colonisation have left a huge legacy that we’re only beginning to clean up, and even as our right hands attempt to make good on misdeeds of the past, our left hands are repeating them. This is an issue that should be fairly straightforward: States should be mapping out old wells and abandoned oilfields, assigning legal responsibility (to reduce the load on the Superfund budget and other federal resources that are roped in when a toxic site is abandoned and the owner refuses to take responsibility for it), and making sure that property is zoned appropriately, with disclosures, so that people understand what they’re getting into.

No one should have to wonder if a house is actually more like a ticking bomb, and no one should be confronted with shrugs from regulatory officials when they ask what’s beneath the soil, and who’s going to clean it up if there’s a problem.

Image: Table grape field and oil well, ben klocek, Flickr