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Pa. House panel approves funding scheme to pay for cleaning up abandoned wells

By: - June 7, 2022 6:11 pm

An abandoned oil well pipe stands in the Allegheny National Forest near Marienville, Pennsylvania (Photo: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images/Capital & Main).

Voting largely along party lines Tuesday, the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee reported out bills establishing a scheme to spend up to $400 million in federal money to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced in February that Pennsylvania would receive $104 million under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plug wells that were not closed by the companies that drilled them. 

So-called orphan wells contribute to environmental damage as they leak methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and contaminate groundwater. The number of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania is estimated to be between 100,000 and 560,000, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. 

The money can be used to identify and catalog well sites, fill in well shafts, remove abandoned equipment, remediate environmental damage, restore native species and monitor emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the federal grant program.

It is part of a $1.15 billion allocation that will be used to clean up inactive wells on federal land, the U.S. Interior Department announced in February.

The Interior Department is expected to dole out more than $3 billion more in environmental funding to the states as a part of the law. Pennsylvania’s share of the funding could eventually top $400 million.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean (HB 2644), would direct 80 percent of the money to the existing Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection orphan well plugging program and 20 percent to a new oil and gas well plugging grant program within the DEP.

Under the new program a qualified contractor could receive a grant of $10,000 or $20,000 to plug a well, depending on the depth.

A second bill sponsored by Rep. James B. Struzzi II, R-Indiana (HB 2528), would require the DEP to award contracts for oil and gas well plugging to Pennsylvania companies before considering out of state firms. 

The bill allocating the federal funding drew criticism from the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Greg Vitali of Delaware County, who questioned its provision limiting the bond drilling companies must pay to $2,500 for wells that do not employ horizontal drilling techniques.

Vitali noted the DEP puts the average cost of plugging a conventional vertical well at $33,000. He said the Sierra Club of Pennsylvania has also said the bond amounts required of well drillers in Pennsylvania are “woefully inadequate.”

“My own opinion is this is a bill that appears to have been written word for word by the conventional drilling industry,” Vitali said.

Vitali said he also believes the criteria for qualified contractors are insufficient. 

Vitali’s criticisms drew the ire of the panel’s chairperson, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, who described it as a “false narrative.” Metcalfe said the bill will incentivize responsible business owners to plug wells, and noted that DEP closed fewer than three-dozen wells in 2020 and 2021.

Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene was the only Democratic lawmaker to vote in favor of the bills.

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Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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