On Wednesday, October 18, Governor Josh Shapiro visited Hillman State Park in Washington County, site of the 100th orphaned and abandoned gas well to be plugged and capped since he took office in January.
Federal funding is helping to revitalize Pennsylvania’s chronically under-resourced orphan well plugging program, tackling a major source of methane emissions that contribute to global warming and threaten human health and safety in the Commonwealth.
“Thanks to real investment from the administration in Washington and leaders in Congress, we have plugged more wells in the first ten months of our administration than the Commonwealth plugged in the last six years combined,” Shapiro said. “And we are just getting started.”
After more than 150 years of oil and gas development, Pennsylvania is riddled with abandoned wells that were never properly shut down after being taken out of production. The locations of most of these wells are unknown, but the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates more than 350,000 are still releasing climate-changing methane gas into the atmosphere.
In addition to being a potent greenhouse gas, Environmental Defense Fund Executive Director Amanda Leland said, methane is a health hazard for people living near well sites. Exposure to atmospheric methane pollution has been linked with heart and lung illnesses, while gas leaking from abandoned wells can contaminate drinking water. Escaping gas also poses a safety risk to nearby buildings, Leland said, potentially causing fires and even explosions.
Because the operators of undocumented “orphan” wells are long gone, the heavy cost of plugging them falls on the state, which has historically struggled to meet the need. But the pace of remediation has accelerated in 2023, thanks to more than $400 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021. Pennsylvania’s renewed commitment to well-plugging has made it possible to leverage more federal money in the future, DEP Secretary Richard Negrin said.
The economic impact of IIJA funding is already being felt in western Pennsylvania, where Yost Drilling employs nearly 1,200 people directly or indirectly in well-plugging operations. Yost CEO Scott Kiger said the company expects to double that number in the next few years as they take on more DEP contracts.
Governor Shapiro also took the opportunity to announce the launch of a new SMS service that makes it easier for the public to report undocumented well sites. Pennsylvanians who discover a well can send photos and location information directly to DEP by texting (717) 788-8990.
Enlisting hikers, cyclists, hunters, and anglers to help identify prospective plugging projects is an example of how outdoor recreation can support environmental goals, and vice-versa, said PEC President Davitt Woodwell. Woodwell has joined Shapiro at several events held recently in state parks and forests, and thanked the governor for his leadership on conservation and outdoor recreation.
“At PEC, we often talk about legacies in our work: legacies that we’ve been left to deal with, and the legacies that we will leave behind us,” Woodwell said. “Projects like this one today, and the state’s commitment to ramp up its capping program, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, keep contaminants out of our water, and work to restore both public and private lands. That legacy is one truly to be proud of.”