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DEP hiring dozens of workers for orphan well plugging project

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania will receive hundreds of millions of dollars to plug defunct oil and gas wells that may pose health and environmental threats.

And now, the state’s existing program is getting more scrutiny for how it prioritizes projects and uses that money.

The money, more than $300 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, is one of the leading ways for the Department of Environmental Protection to deal with climate change, DEP Interim Acting Secretary Jessica Shirley said during Thursday’s Senate budget hearing.

“There’s a lot of things the department is doing that address climate change; the top I would say is the expansive amount of abandoned wells that we have in Pennsylvania, being able to plug those wells,” Shirley said.

The wells are legion across the commonwealth, many of them decades old. Orphan wells, which have no traceable owner, can date back to the first oil boom in the 1850s. The federal well count nationally is about 127,000 orphan wells, with 27,000 in Pennsylvania — however, estimates for undocumented orphan wells in Pennsylvania think there’s 500,000 or more undocumented wells.

Plugging them could create thousands of jobs in the commonwealth, but it’s difficult to find high-polluting wells.

The DEP plans to hire 42 additional staff with federal funding to prepare orphan wells for plugging efforts.

“Some of them are going out to identify if a well is abandoned,” Shirley said. “It sounds like an easy process … but then you have to do a lot of legal legwork to identify if there’s a responsible party. If there is, we go after them to plug it. We don’t want to use state funds or federal dollars to plug that well.”

The verification process isn’t always quick or simple.

“A lot of companies get pretty creative with how to avoid their responsibilities with plugging wells through transfers and things like that,” Shirley said. “It is a very time-consuming activity.”

The department needs staff to prepare wells for plugging, too.

“We have additional folks in contracting to be able to get dollars out the door and in the hands of those well pluggers to plug those wells,” Shirley said.

However, critics of the program have warned about a lack of transparency with which wells get plugged.

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, pointed out that DEP’s well plugging tracker shows only 12% of plugged wells had any human impacts and 5% had environmental impacts. Currently, Pennsylvania has plugged 147 wells with federal funds and another 90 wells are in-progress.

“Are we finding and plugging the right wells?” he asked.

Shirley argued that a short federal window to act on federal plugging meant they had to move quickly.

“We identified the highest-priority wells where we look at health and safety first, then we look at environmental — that’s usually how we rank them,” she said. “We found, I think it was the 25 highest priority, then we looked at a radius of a mile-to-two-miles around them to identify additional wells that needed plugged.”

Plugging low-priority wells near high-priority ones, she said, gave DEP the chance to plug more wells quicker. Other well pluggers who operate without the federal funding have speculated that states want to move fast and plug low-priority wells to avoid looking sluggish compared to other states.

A mix of companies from different states plug wells in Pennsylvania, and Shirley hopes more Pennsylvania pluggers will get involved.

“This is a very specialized trade and there are probably not enough pluggers; I would love to see more Pennsylvania businesses pop up to plug wells,” she said. “I know there’s been some interest from the United Mine Workers and the AFL-CIO at potentially retraining some of their employees to plug wells. I think that could be a huge partnership and huge opportunity for Pennsylvania.”