Pa. gets $104M from infrastructure law to clean up abandoned wells | Wednesday Morning Coffee

The money is ‘one sleeve rolled up’ to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells from the state’s boom years, an advocate said

February 2, 2022 7:17 am

Edwin Drake at the site of the Titusville well circa 1866. (Photo from the Drake Well Museum, PHMC , or Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission). Titusville, PA

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If Pennsylvania’s school kids know one thing about the commonwealth’s long relationship with the fossil fuel industry, it’s that it’s been a story of boom and bust.

From oil to natural gas, wildcatters chased the next big fortune, leaving a scarred landscape and abandoned wells in their wake when the wells ran dry.

According to official estimates, Pennsylvania could be home to as many as a half-million of these so-called “orphaned wells,” which lower property values and pose a threat to groundwater supplies.

On Tuesday, the commonwealth got what advocates are calling a “down payment” on tackling that problem, with the announcement that Pennsylvania is line to receive $104 million from the new federal infrastructure law to clean up and cap these abandoned wells.

“Addressing Pennsylvania’s orphaned and abandoned gas and oil wells will not only support our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will create a cleaner local ecosystem at each well site and energize the economy of our entire commonwealth,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.

The money 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 on Tuesday.

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.

That means the new round of funding represents a seismic leap for Pennsylvania, where the Department of Environmental Protection typically received less than $1 million a year to plug these abandoned wells, Adam Peltz, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Capital-Star.

“This is a great start. This is a lot of money,” Peltz said. “More money is coming. But now DEP needs to ramp up, and industry needs to ramp up to get it done. It’s a roll-up one sleeve moment.”

The state received an initial payment of $25 million on Tuesday, and is second only to Texas, in the amount of money it’s set to receive from the federal government, the Wolf administration said.

A map of orphaned wells in the mid-Atlantic/Appalachian region (Source: The Environmental Defense Fund).

The money mainly will be used to clean up the state’s legacy wells, or those dug between 1850 and 1950, the era before Pennsylvania began regulating oil and gas exploration, Peltz told the Capital-Star.

“I would be shocked if there are any [Marcellus] shale wells in this population,” Peltz said, referring to the state’s most recent fossil fuels boom industry. “… This should all be pretty much conventional wells. This is a legacy problem. But there are reasons to concerned about the active well population, which is about 110,000 wells, and what is being done about them to make sure they aren’t orphaned too.”

The pollution from those aged mines “is one of the greatest environmental issues facing the Commonwealth, and this federal funding through [Biden’s] infrastructure package will go a long way towards addressing some of the most chronically polluted sites,” David Masur, the executive director of the advocacy group, PennEnvironment, told the Capital-Star.

“With hundreds of thousands of acres of abandoned minelands that must be remediated and reclaimed, and legacy pollution from mining as one of the greatest sources of water pollution in Pennsylvania, having the funding to tackle the pollution that scars the Keystone state from mining’s legacy is critical,” Masur said.

In a statement, Kelsey Krepps, a senior campaign representative with The Sierra Club, also welcomed the news, but said the state needed to address its bonding structure so that “oil and gas companies are paying for their own well plugging and enforcement of closure requirements to assure owners are not just leaving leaking wells behind at taxpayer expense.

“Without bonding reform, we’ll continue to see wells sit unplugged and added to our backlogs,” Krepps said. “With our state rule-making petitions, we’re seeking to address this issue now and into the future and the Pennsylvania DEP should work to produce reports on those petitions in a timely manner to fully address this critical state issue.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.