Interior Department announces funding to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells

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The new allocation includes federal aid to cap 18 orphaned wells in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.

The Department of the Interior announced on Wednesday the allocation of $33 million under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plug, remediate, and reclaim 227 orphaned oil and gas wells located on public lands.

According to the department's announcement:

Today's allocation is part of a total of $250 million provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for cleaning up orphaned wells and well sites on federal public lands, national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests. Funding will be distributed to four agencies for work in California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. The agencies are expected to immediately begin the process to acquire plugging and reclamation services through contracts and grants.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, orphaned or abandoned oil and natural gas wells are those that have gone dry, leading their operators to leave them and move on: "'Orphaned' wells are those for which no former owner or operator can be located, while the term 'abandoned well' typically refers to an unproductive well with a known owner/operator. In either case, the wells remain uncapped. They are essentially open holes in the ground that need to be cleaned and plugged with cement to stop their pollutants from escaping into the environment."

These wells continue to leak chemicals into the soil and air, possibly contaminating groundwater used by local communities. They can also be a source of methane gases that can cause poisoning and explosions and also contribute to climate change.

Cleanup of the wells is costly and often the oil and gas industry has not met their obligations to communities, leaving the issue up to states and local municipalities to deal with.

The infrastructure law, which Biden signed on Nov. 15, 2021, created a $4.7 billion program under which the departments of the Interior, Energy, and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service will work on cleaning up orphaned wells. On Jan. 31, 2022, the Department of the Interior announced the allocation of $1.15 billion under the program.

The Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania contains 18 polluting wells that will be among the 277 around the country to be cleaned up by four bureaus within the departments of the Interior and Agriculture with funding under the law.

"Through President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we are making the largest investment in tackling legacy pollution in American history and taking an all-of-government approach to addressing the environmental impacts from these legacy developments while creating good paying jobs in states across the country," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in the department's statement.

The NPR website State Impact reported in October that there are 8,840 documented orphan wells in Pennsylvania alone, but noted, "Pennsylvania likely has the biggest gap between documented orphan wells and undocumented orphan wells ... That's because of Pennsylvania's long history with oil production; the state is the birthplace of the industry in the United States in 1859. For much of that history, operators drilled hundreds of thousands of wells for which there is no record. And there was no requirement to plug them upon abandonment."

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been plugging fewer than 10 wells a year with the resources it has had.

In April 2020, Scott Perry, then the top official on oil and gas management with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, called its orphan wells a "looming crisis."

Prior to the announcement on Wednesday, Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had said in a press release on Jan. 31 that the total funding received by the state from the infrastructure law to address orphaned and abandoned wells would be $104 million.

"Addressing Pennsylvania's orphaned and abandoned gas and oil wells will not only support our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will create a cleaner local ecosystem at each well site and energize the economy of our entire commonwealth," Wolf said.

Along with the environmental benefits, Wolf said, the cleanup efforts would also help create new jobs.

During his first presidential press conference in January 2021, President Joe Biden touted the employment opportunities that cleaning up orphaned wells could produce around the country: "We can put as many pipe fitters and miners to work capping wells at the same price that they would charge to dig those wells."

The Natural Resources Defense Council has noted that many of the jobs associated with working on orphaned wells would go to former employees of the oil and gas industry who had been laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.