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Pennsylvania plugs 200th orphan well


(The Center Square) — The Shapiro administration celebrated 200 orphan oil and gas wells plugged on Tuesday.

That’s double the amount of wells plugged five months ago, thanks in part to what Gov. Josh Shapiro said is “the important bipartisan priority that is capping and plugging orphaned and abandoned wells all across Pennsylvania.”

“We’re proving here in Pennsylvania we know how to come together and do common-sense things that benefit all Pennsylvanians,” he said.

A funding boost from the state and federal governments to plug the wells have kickstarted the small-scale program. The wells, hundreds of thousands of them spread across mostly western and northern Pennsylvania, are remnants of the state’s oil and gas industry dating back to the 1850s.

Shapiro has proposed $11 million in his budget to plug more wells, in addition to $25 million received from the federal government to get more plugged.

“I directed the Department of Environmental Protection to move aggressively…to create a meaningful fund to allow us to plug these wells,” he said.

DEP has hired more staff to work through the well-plugging program: figuring out if a well still has a legal owner who could be held financially liable, preparing contracts for pluggers, and doing the administrative work.

And private pluggers have grown their staff, too.

“We have tripled our well plugging workforce, we have tripled the quantity of equipment we have dedicated toward well plugging, and we vastly expanded the various services we offer,” said Tyler Shank, vice president of Penn Mechanical Group, who plugged the 200th well in DEP’s program.

Shank noted that the state has found at least 500 wells to plug in Butler County alone. Statewide, the problem only gets harder to ameliorate.

“It’s a liability for our commonwealth that’s been over 100 years in the making,” DEP Acting Secretary Jessica Shirley said. “We’re currently estimating that the average cost to plug a well is $100,000, so this problem is about $1 billion in liabilities that we’re tackling head-on. We’re not ignoring it and we’re not pushing it off.”

The Shapiro administration so far has spent about $28 million on plugging projects, she noted.

Shirley called every well a “ticking time bomb” for its potential risks to people and nature — the wells can be found in rural, urban, and suburban Pennsylvania, and poor record-keeping means that many of them are invisible to state officials.

“This particular work is creating thousands of jobs in the private sector,” said Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Grove City, who thanked the governor for prioritizing well-plugging.

A recent report from the Ohio River Valley Institute estimated that plugging the wells across Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky would create about 16,000 jobs.

Shapiro argued that expanding the plugging program is a win for the economy and the environment. Plugging them, he said, is a way to deal with climate change, promote health, and create jobs.

“Today, Pennsylvania is facing the consequences of a legacy left by an industry that made a buck off our natural resources and then got away with abandoning these gas wells without properly plugging them. That, to me, is unacceptable.”

Companies that have left the unplugged wells, the governor said, would “do anything to avoid paying legacy costs.”

“Wherever it’s possible, we will make sure that those responsible for these wells pay for the plugging, not the taxpayers,” Shapiro said.

DEP now has a text hotline for the public to flag unknown wells: 717-788-8990. Don’t assume the state knows about them, the governor said.

“We’re going to continue to work faster and harder to plug more of these wells, to create jobs, to improve our air quality, and make sure we give folks … the peace of mind that they deserve,” Shapiro said. “That is what working together looks like, that is what common-sense government looks like.”

DEP tries to cluster well-plugging contracts to plug more wells and save costs, but that approach has also meant that plugging wells has not always targeted wells that threaten the public. Of the 237 wells plugged or in process, only 5% threaten the environment and 12% threaten Pennsylvania residents.