A gas well in Allegheny County. The infrared image on the right shows gas leaking from the well (Courtesy Earthworks/Capital & Main).
By Melissa Ostroff
Pennsylvania has an unfortunate history of headline-making disasters connected to the oil and gas industry. Most recently, a train carrying toxic petrochemicals derailed just over state lines in East Palestine, Ohio, impacting residents in Beaver County and threatening the region’s entire watershed.
Just a few months before, residents of Cambria County spent two weeks breathing in massive amounts of pollution from a leaking gas storage well.
In my work as a field advocate with Earthworks, I have witnessed the damage and destruction of oil and gas industry operations across Pennsylvania, and heard countless stories from families whose lives have been forever changed by polluted air and water in their communities.
Using an optical gas imaging camera that makes normally invisible pollution visible, I’ve seen leaky gas wells in schoolyards and in public parks, and I’ve smelled the sulfuric odor of oil and gas pollution contaminating soccer fields, state forests, and residential neighborhoods across the state. Pollution from the oil and gas industry doesn’t make headlines every day, but it is constant and widespread.
In December, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection released a report on a large and deep-rooted contingent of the state’s oil and gas industry, highlighting widespread failure to comply with basic regulations that are designed to protect communities.
Years of allowing this industry to fly under the radar has left Pennsylvania littered with 200,000 or more hazardous orphan oil and gas wells. The problem is growing every day, with notices of violation for improperly abandoned wells issued by DEP every month.
As a member of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s former transition team, I am hopeful our future can look different than this. When our governor was Pennsylvania’s attorney general, he established himself as a leader that wasn’t afraid to stand up and protect Pennsylvanians from the harms of big, polluting industries – including fracking.
Shapiro’s upcoming budget address is an opportunity for him to share his plans to put families before chronic polluters, and build a strong, resilient, and renewable economy in Pennsylvania.
Industry accountability could realistically start with codifying recommendations from Pennsylvania’s 43rd statewide grand jury report, a crowning achievement from the governor’s time as attorney general.
These recommendations include cracking down on the common but horrifying practice of spreading toxic and potentially radioactive waste on roads, which was highlighted in DEP’s recent report.
The administration can close the so-called Halliburton loophole that prevents oil and gas waste from being treated like hazardous waste from any other industry. Additionally, the report recommends increasing setback distances between well sites and homes, schools, and other places where people live, work, and play, acknowledging the well-documented health hazards of the industry.
These are among several critical recommendations that are no less relevant today than when they were first announced in June 2020.
Next, the new administration can get in front of the orphan well problem before it balloons even further. An influx of federal funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has drawn more attention and resources to this issue – but these taxpayer dollars are a drop in the bucket, and do nothing to hold the industry accountable.
Real accountability starts with increasing bonding levels – money set aside by an operator up front – to reflect the true cost of well plugging. Current bonding requirements, which are meant to cover plugging costs if an operator goes bankrupt, are wildly inadequate, making it easy for industry to walk away and leave taxpayers to foot the bill.
Likewise, oil and gas wells often follow a well-worn path before they become orphans. Shapiro’s DEP can zero in on “orphan-wells-in-training” at several intervention points, including when companies apply for inactive status and when assets are transferred from one operator to another.
Finally, the governor must demonstrate climate leadership by actively planning a transition away from dirty fossil fuels and towards clean energy and all the economic opportunity that comes with it.
Shapiro can hold industry accountable while managing the necessary decline of fossil fuels, and seizing the jobs and economic opportunity that a transition to clean energy will offer.
For years, oil and gas companies have been given a free pass to litter our commonwealth with pollution, hazardous waste, and orphan wells, treating schoolyards, backyards and parks like a public dumping ground.
Shapiro can seize the opportunity of his first budget address to show Pennsylvanians the bold leadership and vision that will push us toward a healthier future where dirty industries no longer make the rules and clean energy has a clear path forward.
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