Thursday, August 25, 2022

Bay Journal: New Abandoned Wells - More Concerns Emerge Over Pennsylvania’s Conventional Oil & Gas Wells

In 2020, an employee for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection smelled crude oil while driving to work in the northwestern part of the state.

Trusting his instincts, he asked agency crews to follow their noses. They found an old abandoned well leaking oil within 500 feet of a dozen year-round and seasonal residences. 

The oil was flowing directly into the South Branch of Tionesta Creek, which the state classifies the stream as a cold-water, high-quality fishery, meaning it is among the most unpolluted in the state.

DEP found no record of the well’s owner and had to use emergency funds to stop the oozing pollutant and its nuisance odors.

Elsewhere, a well borehole filled with acid mine drainage was spewing poisonous iron-rich water into a tributary of the Susquehanna River. 

A garage in Armstrong County that was built over an unseen abandoned gas well blew up.

These scenarios play out too often, say state environmental officials. 

The state has more than 200,000 wells that were constructed and abandoned by oil and gas companies — the most of any state in the nation. 

No one knows for sure just how many because some wells are so old that no records exist. The state did not require notification of wells until 1955.

The wells included in this tally are from conventional drilling and not the wells drilled to support hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.

Often obscured by vegetation or located deep in the woods, more abandoned oil and gas wells are found all the time, often leaking oil and methane. 

Oil can be toxic to frogs, reptiles, fish, waterfowl and other freshwater life. Methane, a global-warming gas, is highly poisonous to aquatic organisms.

In 2021, the federal government told Pennsylvania it would receive nearly $400 million to plug some of the wells as part of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

State environmental officials cheered, calling the aid a “game-changer” in the long battle to make headway against one of the state’s most lingering and harmful pollution problems.

But as the state prioritizes problematic wells and lines up an army of companies and environmental groups to find and plug them, the renewed focus on the problem has set off a geyser of controversies.

Taxpayers pick up the tab

One overarching issue is that even modern-day drillers in the state sometimes abandon wells without plugging them, a violation of state laws.

Research of DEP records by David Hess, a former DEP secretary who publishes an environmental blog, showed that from 2016 through 2022, the agency issued 4,270 notices of violations to 256 oil and gas companies for abandoning wells without plugging them. Some abandoned hundreds of wells, records showed. 

DEP is working with many of the owners to plug them.

If abandoned, the wells must be sealed at taxpayer expense. DEP estimates that it will cost $1.6 billion to plug and stop leaks on the 200,000 abandoned wells identified so far.

Pennsylvania requires drillers to post a bond that helps cover any state-incurred costs for plugging abandoned wells. 

But the recent increased focus on the wells highlighted the fact that the bond covers only a fraction of the actual cost.

The 1984 Oil and Gas Act requires drillers to post a bond of $2,500 per well. But DEP officials say the average plugging cost is $33,000. 

This summer, the state Environmental Quality Board, which issues all DEP regulations, agreed to consider a petition from environmental groups that called for increasing the bond to $38,000 per well.

Before the board could take any action, the state legislature rushed through a law that blocks any increase in plugging bonding for 10 years.

In addition, it continues to exempt the owners of conventional oil and gas wells drilled before 1985 — most of the wells currently in service — from having to pay a bond.

Gov. Tom Wolf did not sign the law but allowed it to go into effect without a veto, reportedly as part of a trade to get education priorities into the state budget. 

Governor calls for broad review

Less than two weeks after the budget passed, Wolf circled back to the well abandonment issues, directing DEP to “revisit whether the commonwealth is doing enough to ensure that this industry is being a good environmental steward by preventing the abandonment of wells and meeting its obligations as a prudent trustee of Pennsylvania’s public natural resources for current and future generations.”

“Evidence on this count is discouraging,” the governor said.

Wolf said the agency will consider the need for increased scrutiny and enforcement, including possible criminal prosecution, on several well abandonment fronts.

One of them is the practice of drillers selling or transferring well permits to other companies or individuals to avoid plugging obligations.

The review will also investigate the possibility that drillers will have to report when a well is played out to delay plugging responsibilities.

There also is concern that the thwarted updated bonding requirements may jeopardize some of the eagerly anticipated federal funding earmarked for Pennsylvania’s unplugged wells.

One of the prerequisites for a $20 million grant is that states take steps to reduce the likelihood that additional wells will be abandoned.

Kurt Klapkowski, DEP’s Acting Deputy for Oil and Gas Management, told the agency’s Citizens Advisory Council in July that the inability to increase bonds means the state must be “creative” to qualify for the money.

(Reprinted from the Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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[Posted: August 25, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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