Mapping Pennsylvania’s Orphan Wells

The first commercial oil well in the U.S. was drilled in western Pennsylvania in 1859. Since then, thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled across the state. About 96,000 wells were active and producing as of last year, while, according to estimates from the Department of Environmental Protection, more than double that number were inactive and abandoned. A subset of inactive wells are considered “orphans”: facilities for which no owner of record can be identified.

One of the greatest concerns about orphan wells is their potential to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In the short term, methane is over 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For that reason, cutting methane emissions is one of the most immediately impactful ways to slow the rate of global warming, according to research from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Orphan wells can also contaminate waterways and drinking water sources, and reduce property values — all reasons why current law requires that oil and gas wells be plugged after they are retired from production.

Researchers from EDF and McGill University have compiled information on the locations of approximately 81 thousand orphan wells across the U.S., including almost 9 thousand in Pennsylvania.

But these requirements came relatively late in the game for Pennsylvania, where oil and gas had gone largely unregulated for nearly a century. During that time, potentially hundreds of thousands of wells were abandoned by their owners without being properly shut down and plugged. Many of the companies responsible for these abandoned wells no longer exist, leaving the state to clean up the mess. Not only are the original owners often long gone, the locations — and even the existence — of many orphan wells are poorly documented. While Pennsylvania’s long history of oil and gas development suggests our state is likely home to a large number of these orphan wells, to date DEP has identified only a small fraction of them. Other states face similar challenges.

Fortunately, bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota would fund a nationwide plan to plug every documented orphan well in the U.S. The REGROW Act would also begin the process of identifying and documenting the wells for which no reliable record currently exists.

Graphics source: Environmental Defense Fund

But what about the ones we already know about? To help close the information gap, researchers from Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and McGill University have been working to identify and consolidate information on the locations of orphan wells across the country as of summer 2021. The research revealed approximately 81 thousand orphan wells across 28 states, with a large concentration of orphaned wells throughout Appalachia. EDF identified 8,840 in Pennsylvania. The vast majority of these wells are located in the western part of the state.

Historically, there has been very little funding for orphan well cleanup, but that may soon change. With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill this month, $21 billion in new funding is available for environmental cleanup projects, which includes plugging orphan wells. A version of the REGROW Act was included in the infrastructure bill.

Learn more about EDF’s research here, and learn about PEC’s work to address methane emissions here.