Orphaned and abandoned could potentially leak methane gas into the air, soil, and groundwater. Fixing that problem could mean more jobs for Pennsylvanians.
Sealing off abandoned oil and gas wells throughout the commonwealth might sound like a boring topic, but it could bring thousands of jobs to the state while helping the environment.
Unplugged abandoned wells pose serious environmental and safety hazards, said Seth Pelepko, environmental program manager for the Bureau of Oil & Gas Planning and Program Management for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Costs to plug a well continue to increase and funding is limited.
A recent report found that a federally funded well-plugging program could create close to 4,000 jobs per year over a 20-year period in Pennsylvania.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, has $16 billion earmarked for plugging abandoned wells across the country. This initiative would achieve the dual goals of job creation and improving air quality.
“If you look at the draft legislation, it could be tens of millions of dollars for us,” Pelepko said. “This is definitely significant for the state of Pennsylvania.”
Abandoned Wells in PA
There are 8,700 verified abandoned wells throughout the state and an estimated 200,000 that have not been identified, Pelepko said.
Hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since 1859, when the first one was constructed outside Titusville in Crawford County.
Well drilling was done without oversight for 96 years, until permitting requirements were enacted in 1955.
The companies responsible came and went, leaving behind orphaned and abandoned wells that have spiraled into an expensive and overwhelming problem for DEP.
Why Are Abandoned Wells a Problem?
Abandoned wells that aren’t properly plugged could potentially cause environmental and safety hazards, Pelepko said.
Methane gas can leak from an abandoned well, potentially contaminating the air and water around it. Approximately 20% of wells have leaks, Pelepko said.
Methane leaks through the soil and air can get into an enclosed space and could potentially cause an explosion.
Abandoned wells also can release metals, such as magnesium and arsenic, that could contaminate surrounding soils and groundwater.
Over the years, studies and reports have been done to show the impact well leaks have on water supplies. Pelepko said that work needs to continue.
“Wells are dynamic,” Pelepko said. “Not having a well permanently plugged means that there is a higher uncertainty with regards to the problems that that well could pose.
“We have to continue to work toward properly plugging all of the wells we have become aware of,” Pelepko said. “That really is the only way to make sure that we minimize the risks associated with them.”
Previous Attempts to Plug Abandoned Wells
The state Legislature passed the Oil and Gas Act in 1984 and provided funding for plugging orphaned and abandoned wells. Pennsylvania plugged its first abandoned well in 1989 and since then has successfully sealed off 3,000 wells.
It can be an expensive process.
The cost to plug a well varies, Pelepko said. Typically, DEP assigns a cost of $33,000 per well, but in some cases costs could soar to $50,000 or even $100,000, he said.
Right now, Pelepko said, funding for plugging abandoned wells is tied to permit surcharges. For each oil well permit obtained in Pennsylvania, DEP receives $150. Gas well permits garner the department $250.
“There have been years, and we are going through a period right now, where drilling has been really slow, so our funding is relatively low,” Pelepko said.
Extensive work has been done to draw in other funding sources, Pelepko said, such as securing grants, developing partnerships with other departments to share the cost, and taking advantage of the Good Samaritan Law that allows a third party to plug a well while DEP assumes liability.
Pelepko said that with adequate funding, the issue could be addressed at a greater rate.
Between 2000 and 2011, DEP had access to Growing Greener funds, a state-run program for environmental projects. Pelepko said hundreds of wells were plugged each year because of that funding source. For example, in 2008 the department spent over $3.5 million plugging 237 wells.
Anyone who locates an abandoned well is required to report it to DEP within 60 days of discovery.
“Once reported, we will risk assess the well and rank it,” Pelepko said. “If it is a priority, it will get plugged sooner rather than later. If it’s not, we obviously have to be careful with the way we allocate funds. We will at least have it on our radar screen and have it documented. That’s really important for us to be able to do that.”