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PA gets federal funding to plug dangerous gas, oil wells Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Cheryl Thomas first asked Pennsylvania officials in 1988 to cap an old oil well on his property.

Some of the wells on her McKean County property, abandoned by the company that drilled them, are leaking liquid, methane, or both. , an adult may fall.

But her pleas for help went unheard, she said. forced to live alongside the leaky and dangerous relics of the long history of

With the expected infusion of federal money and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s pledge to prioritize the issue, some lawmakers and environmental advocates are pushing the state to do more to plug thousands of abandoned gas and oil wells. We hope to be able to do a lot.

But some admit that money alone cannot solve the problem.

Hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since the oil rush began over 100 years ago.

If a well has not been used for at least one year, the state will declare it abandoned and require the operator or owner to plug it. Doing so is key to preventing soil and water contamination and the release of the greenhouse gas methane. 25 times stronger By trapping more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

State officials estimate there are about 200,000 abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, but an analysis of methane emissions puts that number at as high as 750,000.

A recent report from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found well operators fail regularly Plug the well if necessary.

The agency will also plug wells, but only if the owner cannot be identified, if they were drilled before 1984, or only as a last resort. Otherwise, it will try to force the well owner to take care of the plug.

The latter has proven difficult for the agency, with a recent report saying there is a “non-compliance culture” among well operators.

In between are people like Thomas. Over the decades, when he has asked DEPs, well owners, and local politicians for solutions, Thomas has repeatedly found himself frustrated and tells them, “Well, I don’t want us to die.” I think I’m just waiting,” he said.

Nate Smallwood

An abandoned well on the property of Cheryl and Joe Thomas in Duke Center, Pennsylvania, April 25, 2023.

high cost of plugging wells

Abandoned wells pose a variety of safety hazards, including environmental pollution and sinkholes, but tend to leak large amounts of oil. methane It is one of the state’s greatest concerns.

A 1984 law regulating drilling companies in Pennsylvania made the DEP responsible for plugging unproductive wells drilled before 1985. isolated wellDEP also plugs wells when the owner cannot be identified.

Pennsylvania could receive up to $400 million over the next 10 years as part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 plug an abandoned and isolated wellIn a speech announcing his first budget proposal as governor, Shapiro said his administration would apply for the maximum amount the state is entitled to receive.

“Block wells, improve air quality, strengthen communities,” said Shapiro.

In spending this new federal money on uncorking wells, the DEP says it is prioritizing wells that are highly positioned in the field. Abandoned Orphan Well Listuse the inside scoring system Decide what you need to plug in the most. Criteria include the well’s structural integrity, hazards to people and the local environment, and other hazards.

So far, the federal government has given states an initial $25 million grant that will be used insert 20 wells As of May 9. The Federal Ministry of the Interior 50 wells in total.

Some environmental activists fear that due to the scope of the problem, there will not be enough funding to address it meaningfully.

in the state spent $37 million We have filled 3,000 abandoned wells in the last 30 years. 25,000 The DEP records that period, and an even smaller fraction of the hundreds of thousands of wells that are understood to be in the state. According to DEP Plugging a well costs $33,000, but can reach as high as $800,000.

The price to plug 25,000 documented wells is projected $1.8 billion.

“Whack-A-Mole Game”

Under state law, companies must cap oil and gas wells drilled after 1984 when they cease to operate. DEPs are responsible for enforcing that requirement, but are struggling to do so.

One of the problems DEP faces is knowing which wells are no longer productive. Between 2017 and 2021, 57% of well operators failed to submit mandatory production reports to the state, according to the DEP. reportDuring the same period, authorities issued 3,123 indictments for failing to plug abandoned wells.

“It’s like Whack-A-Mole,” said Rep. Greg Vitali (D.D.), chairman of the House Environment Committee. “It’s great to get federal funding and plug these in. But if you’re plugging in the old [wells] You haven’t done anything because the new is abandoned. ”

Joe Thomas removes leaves from an abandoned well owned by him and his wife, Cheryl, in Duke Center, Pennsylvania.

Nate Smallwood

Joe Thomas removes leaves from an abandoned well owned by him and his wife, Cheryl, in Duke Center, Pennsylvania.

Arthur Stewart, president of Cameron Energy Company and a member of the state’s Crude Oil Development Advisory Board, said he had seen the kind of “non-compliance culture” in the industry that the DEP claimed in its report. said no.

Stewart also heads the PA Grade Crude Oil Coalition, a lobbying group representing well owners and operators. He said he emailed the board to ask if there had been any instances of violations among board members after the DEP report was released, but they said no. Coalition members are responsible for tens of thousands of wells, Stewart said.

He also said that the DEP has stopped accepting paper copies of production reports and machine inspection reports, and that small producers (those who own 10 wells or less) have failed to meet deadlines. alleging that it prevents them from submitting reports to

In the report, the DEP said it had “necessary powers” ​​to regulate oil and gas companies, including denying them licenses, mortgaged their property, and issuing criminal charges. and tools. Reports say there isn’t enough money to hire field inspectors, hire lawyers to focus on compliance, and allow managers to enforce the regulations.

Federal funding will make a difference on that front. DEP is currently recruiting his 41 new staff members to the Oil and Gas Administration. The position will be funded initially by his $25 million grant. This leaves his 10% of the funds for administrative expenses.

Dave Palmerton, who owns a well plugging consulting business in Pennsylvania and is now the director of environmental consulting firm SCS Engineers, told Spotlight PA that DEP primarily needs administrative resources.

“There may be gas wells reported as still operating that are not actually operating,” Palmerton said. “This could be because they aren’t telling the truth, or because there is so little gas left that the well doesn’t need to be plugged.”

Katie Bloom, Pennsylvania’s Director of Protected Voters Policy and Legislation, also said funding issues will affect DEP enforcement.

“DEP has historically been underfunded and needs to raise a lot of money, especially for its staff,” she said.

In theory, DEP could recoup the cost of plugging the well through a bond that the operator would have to lay before drilling.

If the operator abandons the well and fails to meet its legal obligations, the security deposit must offset the cost of plugging the well.

But the cost of these bonds is much lower than the cost of plugging a well, and the DEP says it rarely pursues confiscations for that reason. Traditional well bonds, he caps at $2,500, but the average cost of plugging a well is more than 10 times that, according to the DEP.

The bill will pass Congress in 2022 and former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe has allowed it to become law without signatures. Capping and removing bond costs Ability to increase the capacity of independent regulatory committees cost.In In such a regulatory environment, Karen Feridun of the environmental group Better Path Coalition argued that the DEP cannot meaningfully promise to hold drillers accountable.

“Don’t overpromise what you can handle when it’s obvious you can’t,” she said of DEP. “They have failed to manage some of the compliance and have failed to report what the industry is doing.”

Cheryl and Joe Thomas with one of dozens of abandoned wells on their Duke Center, Pennsylvania, property.

Nate Smallwood

Cheryl and Joe Thomas with one of dozens of abandoned wells on their Duke Center, Pennsylvania, property.

Property owner Thomas, who has been trying to plug a well since the 1980s, said he was tired of dealing with the DEP and would give up the effort, at least for now.

“It took 25 years to make a move,” Thomas said. “So what do you know?”

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https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2023/05/pa-gas-oil-wells-climate-change-methane-josh-shapiro/ PA gets federal funding to plug dangerous gas, oil wells Spotlight PA

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