Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the Pittsburgh area Thursday to announce the plugging of the first 10 abandoned oil and gas wells in the area paid for with funds from the 2021 infrastructure law.
But with 27,000 known abandoned oil wells to plug across Pennsylvania and possibly hundreds of thousands more left to discover, the announcement underscored the daunting task ahead for Congress and the federal and state agencies in charge of finding and capping oil and gas wells.
Haaland, standing in front of a derelict oil well in Ed and Mary Vojtas’ front yard in Ohio Township, Pa., said the well is leaking gas and will be one of the state’s first to be plugged with federal infrastructure money.
“These wells emit methane, they litter the landscape with rusted dangerous equipment posing safety hazards and threats to wildlife,” Haaland said. “Many of these wells have been left behind in backyards.”
Pennsylvania, the birthplace of America’s oil industry, has more documented orphaned wells than any other state. Its effort to plug the state’s orphaned wells using federal infrastructure funding starts soon, with 10 wells in the Pittsburgh area, Richard Negrin, acting director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said, speaking alongside Haaland.
Until now, Pennsylvania was able to plug “only a handful” of abandoned wells annually, but federal funding will allow the state to plug 235 wells in 2023, Negrin said.
Millions of Wells to Cap
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Pubic Law 117-58) earmarked $4.7 billion for cleaning up derelict oil and gas wells left behind by drillers decades ago before states regulated them.
The money will only just begin the decadeslong process of finding and plugging all the nation’s abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells.
There are roughly 131,000 documented orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells nationwide, with the Interior Department estimating an overall total of about 3.5 million.
The infrastructure money for orphaned wells is being distributed to the states by the Interior Department, but it’s up to the states to take the lead on cleaning up the wells to “get the best bang for the buck,” Haaland said.
“They all have the opportunity to get funding to do the work in their particular state,” Haaland said. “It really is up to the local communities.”
States are slow to clean up the wells in part because it can cost up to $1 million to plug each well, and because there are so many.
Plugging orphaned wells is crucial because leaking methane worsens climate change and threatens to explode nearby homes, and seeping oil and other fluids from the well heads can contaminate streams and wetlands.
The wells leak deadly hydrogen sulfide gas and take roughly the same annual toll on the climate as all the fossil fuel-fired electric power plants in Mississippi, according to a 2020 Columbia University study.
States typically don’t track how much water pollution comes from abandoned oil and gas wells. In one analysis, Ohio officials concluded that leaks from orphan wells accounted for nearly a quarter of the 185 incidents of groundwater contamination statewide between 1983 and 2007.
Ed Vojtas said the abandoned well in his yard doesn’t seem to have posed a health threat, but he’s glad to see it removed.
“Kids want climb on it, or somebody we don’t know climbs on it, then there would be a liability,” he said.
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