Pennsylvania Legacies #144

May 14, 2021By: Lily Jones
PEC Blog

Nobody knows exactly how many orphaned oil and gas wells dot the Pennsylvania landscape – even conservative estimates put the number well into the hundreds of thousands. Every day these defunct facilities remain unplugged, they’re emitting greenhouse gases, contaminating groundwater, and compromising air quality.

The REGROW Act would provide billions of federal dollars for orphan well cleanup across the U.S. What would it mean for Pennsylvania? 

 

The first commercial oil well in the U.S. was drilled in Venango County, Pennsylvania, in 1859. But it would be more than a century before the state enacted laws holding operators responsible for cleaning up well sites after they’re no longer in use. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells were drilled, extracted, and abandoned.Many of these wells – as many as a half-million by some estimates – are still out there, uncapped, and mostly undocumented. Each represents a threat to groundwater integrity, air quality, and the climate.

“At the rate of estate plugging, it would take hundreds and hundreds of years to plug all of the orphans in Pennsylvania.”

But because there’s no “owner of record” responsible for remediating these risks, the task of plugging hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells falls to the state government. And the state simply doesn’t have the resources to meet the need.

Adam Peltz, EDF

“At the rate of estate plugging, it would take hundreds and hundreds of years to plug all of the orphans in Pennsylvania,” said Adam Peltz, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Revive Economic Growth and Reclaim Orphan Wells Act of 2021, or REGROW Act, was introduced in Congress last month by Senators Ben Ray Lujan and Kevin Cramer, and would provide more than 4.6 billion federal dollars to plug known orphan wells and document the unknown ones.

“The idea here is to supercharge the existing orphan well-plugging system, and the goal of the program is to plug and remediate basically every documented orphan well in the country. And make a downpayment on some of the undocumented wells,” said Mr. Peltz.

Pennsylvania would be one of the biggest beneficiaries from the legislation, should it become law. The money from the bill would be divided between states based on number of orphan wells, and the share of national orphaned wells in Pennsylvania is about 14-15%, according to Mr. Peltz. If passed, Pennsylvania could potentially receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the REGROW Act to fund plugging programs.

“Because of the job creation aspect and because of the environmental protection aspect, this is a real win-win.”

That would mean lots of new jobs – and, as we transition to cleaner energy, a chance to re-employ Pennsylvanians laid off from work in fossil-fuel industries.

“In fact, its primary purpose is to create jobs,” said Mr. Peltz. “Hundreds of millions of dollars would create or retain thousands of oilfield service jobs in Pennsylvania. And so, because of the job creation aspect and because of the environmental protection aspect, this is a real win-win. The bill has support across the country.”

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