Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Bay Journal: PA Conventional Gas Wells Routinely Abandoned, Left Unplugged

A governor-ordered inquiry into how well conventional oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania are obeying environmental laws has found a “culture of noncompliance”, with drillers routinely abandoning wells without plugging them as required to prevent the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Pennsylvania has more abandoned oil and gas wells than any state and the oldest oil and gas industry in the nation.

The report released in late December by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which regulates the industry, also found that about 56% of well owners failed to report the amount of waste they generated, as required by law, as well as where it was taken for disposal.  [Read more here]

DEP looked at environmental compliance from conventional oil and gas operations— not from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — between 2017 and 2021. Violations for abandoning wells without plugging them was the most common infraction. 

The agency issued 3,123 violation notices to 256 companies for that problem during the five-year period and charged 15 of them with fines.

“The widespread reporting noncompliance by the conventional oil and gas industry denies DEP and the public critical information about the operating status of individual wells, the overall industry and, in the case of mechanical integrity assessments, may pose a threat to public health and safety and the environment,” the report said.

It warned that the cost to clean up abandoned wells may fall on taxpayers.

“A significant change in the culture of noncompliance as an acceptable norm in the conventional oil and gas industry will need to occur before meaningful improvement can happen,” it concluded. “This record of noncompliance will require DEP to further develop and refine its techniques for deterring violations.”

DEP is in the process of updating its regulations regarding the conventional oil and gas industry.

The probe was requested by former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2022 after the state legislature passed a law that pre-empted an arm of DEP from raising the amount of bond money that oil and gas companies must pay to cover the cost of plugging inactive wells.

The current law caps the bond at $25,000 for each new well. No bonding is required for wells drilled before 1985 — or approximately 60% of known abandoned wells.

At the urging of environmental groups, the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board had agreed to consider raising the bond amount to $38,000 per well.

DEP has said the average cost to plug a well is about $33,000.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill freezing the current bond amount. Wolf allowed that bill to become law without his signature, but he requested that DEP probe environmental compliance by the industry “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.”

Abandoned gas wells have become a massive financial and environmental problem in Pennsylvania and have received more recent scrutiny because methane emissions are 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide for their potential contribution to global warming over a 20-year period.

A 2016 study of Pennsylvania’s abandoned oil and gas wells published in the journal Environmental Sciences, gave an estimate of up to 750,000 abandoned wells. Moreover, it found that methane emissions from leaking wells were a “substantial source of methane in the atmosphere,” especially from a small proportion of high-emitting wells.

DEP’s records show about 31,000 known abandoned wells. But its estimated number of unknown wells stretching back to 1859 is approximately 200,000. The agency has said fixing them at taxpayer expense could range into the billions of dollars.

According to the DEP report, if present-day wells are also being abandoned without being sealed, even with bonds in place since 1985, the price tag for fixing the problem may be growing. There are about 100,000 active oil and gas wells in state.

In 2022, the federal Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act made Pennsylvania eligible for $104 million in the first phase of a well-plugging initiative. But DEP estimates that will cover the cost of plugging only about 277 wells.

Members of the oil and gas industry say the DEP report is inaccurate. The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Producers Association accused the agency of “a continuing adversarial approach.”

In writing its report, said Daniel J. Weaver, the association’s president and executive director, DEP relied on a flawed reporting system and “distorted data from that system to support predetermined conclusions.”

Many of the wells listed as violations are already part of a consent order to resolve the problem, and long-resolved or improperly issued violations notices remain in the computer system and were counted, Weaver said.

Oil and gas operators are simply not walking away from wells, added Arthur Stewart, president of Cameron Energy Co., a gas well operator and chair of DEP’s Pennsylvania Crude Development Advisory Council.

“Routine abandonment is wildly unrealistic. If an operator abandons a well, the operator can be fined daily and sent to jail. Abandoning a well is, in fact, very expensive in money and lost freedom,” he said, claiming that the high numbers cited by DEP include repeat notices of the same violations, sometimes issued to well owners who are long dead.

Many of Pennsylvania’s abandoned wells predate the bonding requirement that began in 1985, he said. “In other words, the people that abandoned those wells had no skin in the game … My company operates over 1,000 wells and my company has never abandoned a well. [We plug] as many old wells as we drill new.”

DEP has not yet responded to Bay Journal questions about its report.

(Reprinted from the Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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-- Republican Herald Editorial: Hold Owners Of Natural Gas Wells Accountable For Abandoned Wells

PA DEP Public Notice Dashboards:

-- Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Weekly Compliance Dashboard - Feb. 25 to March 3; More Well Plugging Sites Inspected [PaEN]

-- PA Oil & Gas Industrial Facilities: Permit Notices/Opportunities To Comment - March 4 [PaEN]

-- DEP Posts 63 Pages Of Permit-Related Notices In March 4 PA Bulletin  [PaEN] 

PA Oil & Gas Compliance Reports

-- Feature: 60 Years Of Fracking, 20 Years Of Shale Gas: Pennsylvania’s Oil & Gas Industrial Infrastructure Is Hiding In Plain Sight [PaEN]

-- Conventional Oil & Gas Well Owners Failed To File Annual Production/Waste Generation Reports For 61,655 Wells; Attorney General Continues Investigation Of Road Dumping Wastewater  [PaEN]

-- DEP Issued 754 Notices Of Violation For Defective Oil & Gas Well Casing, Cementing, The Fundamental Protection Needed To Prevent Gas Migration, Groundwater & Air Contamination, Explosions  [PaEN]

-- DEP Report Finds: Conventional Oil & Gas Drillers Routinely Abandon Wells; Fail To Report How Millions Of Gallons Of Waste Is Disposed; And Non-Compliance Is An ‘Acceptable Norm’  [PaEN]

-- DEP 2021 Oil & Gas Program Annual Report Shows Conventional Oil & Gas Operators Received A Record 610 Notices Of Violation For Abandoning Wells Without Plugging Them  [PaEN]

-- PA Oil & Gas Industry Has Record Year: Cost, Criminal Convictions Up; $3.1 Million In Penalties Collected; Record Number Of Violations Issued; Major Compliance Issues Uncovered; Evidence Of Health Impacts Mounts  [PaEN]

Related Articles This Week:

-- Bay Journal: PA Conventional Gas Wells Routinely Abandoned, Left Unplugged - By Ad Crable, Chesapeake Bay Journal  [PaEN]

-- PA Capital-Star Guest Essay: It’s Time To Hear Bold Leadership On Oil & Gas In Gov. Shapiro’s Budget Address - By Melissa Ostroff, EarthWorks, Member Shapiro Transition Team   [PaEN]

-- Better Path Coalition, FracTracker Alliance Release Pennsylvania Is Worth Protecting, A Visual Reminder Of The People, Places & Natural Resources Worth Protecting From Environmental Devastation, Climate Change  [PaEN]

-- Senate Committee Meets March 6 On Bill Prohibiting Elected Officials In Local Governments From Moving To Cleaner Energy Sources To Combat Climate Change  [PaEN]

-- Senate Committee Meets March 8 To Consider Bill Allowing General Assembly To Kill Regulations By Doing Nothing [PaEN]

-- Senate Hearing On Electric Grid Reliability: Natural Gas Continues To Have Reliability Problems; Renewables Aren’t Coming Online Fast Enough; Energy Office To Be Proposed  [PaEN]

-- Sen. Yaw Proposes Independent Energy Office To Promote Development Of PA’s Diverse Energy Portfolio - Natural Gas, Nuclear Power, Coal [PaEN]

-- Post-Gazette: Smoke Stacks From Closed Hatfield’s Ferry Coal-Fired Power Plant Demolished, Closing Chapter In PA Industrial History In Greene County: ‘I’m Ecstatic. It Was The Dirtiest, Dirtiest Place Ever.  It Put A Blight On Our Community’

-- PJM Interconnection Study Shows Renewable Energy Sources Not Coming Online Fast Enough To Replace Fossil Fuel Plants; Critical Path Analysis Started To Avoid Grid Reliability Risks  [PaEN] 

-- Latest PJM Interconnection Electricity Capacity Auction Shows Price Decrease, But Mixed Results In PA [PaEN] 

-- Independent Fiscal Office Reports 4th Quarter 2022 Natural Gas Production Decreased 1.6%; Average Price Increased By 82.5% Compared To Last Year [PaEN] 

-- Senate Republicans, 4 Democrats Pass Resolution Urging Restart Of Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Abandoned By Company [BTW Not In PA]   [PaEN]

-- Republicans On Senate Committee Report Out Bills On Decommissioning Solar Energy Facilities, Limiting 1 Use Of PFAS Chemicals, Resolution Calling For Restart Of Keystone XL Pipeline  [PaEN]

-- Solar United Neighbors Helping Lancaster Residents Harvest Sunshine With New Solar Co-Op  [PaEN] 

-- Observer-Reporter Guest Essay: Natural Gas Pipelines Can Secure Our Energy And Economic Future - By Republican Sen. Bartolotta  [DEP hasn’t denied any pipeline permits in PA, But they are the most heavily penalized for violations of any industry in PA history]

-- Washington & Jefferson College Hosts March 8 Webinar On Renewable Natural Gas  [PaEN]

[Posted: February 28, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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