The long road ahead for gas well plugging effort

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(The Center Square) — The industrial inheritance of orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells has left hundreds of thousands scattered across Pennsylvania.

They pose risks to human health and nature, and more taxpayer money has been dedicated by state and federal governments in recent years to reduce these risks by plugging them – Pennsylvania included.

It’s been a slow start, however.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration celebrated some progress on the effort on Wednesday, but environmental activists say that’s because the program seems to plug less-troublesome wells instead of higher-priority ones.

“Those wells that once fueled industries and heated homes now pose a public safety, environmental, and a climate risk to all of us,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Rich Negrin said during a press conference celebrating 100 wells plugged in the last 10 months. “When operators walk away, the liability shifts to the commonwealth and often to our taxpayers — and that’s unacceptable.”

Abandoned wells have not been active for at least a year, while orphan wells are those without a clear owner. Federal action has sent in $100 million to plug those wells, but critics have argued the plugging program lacks transparency and current law encourages operators not to cap their wells.

Though the 100 wells plugged are more than the past six years combined, it’s barely a dent in the problem at hand.

Negrin said that DEP only has accurate information for 30,000 wells that need capped, though estimates for how many uncapped wells are in Pennsylvania range from 200,000 to 500,000 or more. When looking for unmarked wells, DEP officials walk through the woods to find small pipes.

Leaders promised a dramatic increase in the capping program.

“Pennsylvania right now is on pace to receive at least $400 million in federal grants to help complement our state resources to cap and plug wells like this,” Shapiro said. “That means thousands more wells we can plug, and my administration is committed to continuing this work.”

The governor also hit on a common theme of his tenure: arguing that environmental protection and economic growth aren’t opposed.

“My administration is making real progress towards tackling a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions here in Pennsylvania, and creating thousands of good-paying, union jobs in the process,” Shapiro said. “We must reject the false choice between protecting jobs and protecting our planet. I believe we can do both.”

Previously, DEP officials estimated that they will plug 226 wells with the $25 million in federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Shapiro was praised by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, but the Better Path Coalition was much more critical.

“The worst wells are not the ones being plugged. Ninety six percent have no environmental impacts associated with them, though the tracker provides no information about how impacts are defined or assessed,” the coalition argued in a press release, referencing a DEP project tracker.

Data issues also make it harder to prioritize wells that are greater threats.

“Some of the wells the IIJA funds were used to plug are in industry executives’ backyards. Meanwhile, the DEP’s own priority omits wells known to be leaking methane,” Laurie Barr, co-founder of Save Our Streams PA, said. “The list does not even mention a well the DEP has identified as the second worst of the ones they have located.”

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