Massive aid on way to plug pollution from oil, gas wells
For decades, Pennsylvania has barely made a dent in stopping pollution from hundreds of thousands of abandoned or orphaned oil and gas wells. Now, the state may soon receive nearly $400 million to tackle one of its most insidious legacy pollution problems.
“It’s a game changer,” said Kurt Klapkowski, director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Oil & Gas Planning and Program Management. He was referring to the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed by Congress on Nov. 5 and signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15. In addition to Pennsylvania’s $400 million cut of federal dollars, the state will add matching funds for some projects.
Climate change and pressure to throw a lifeline to communities that long survived on fossil fuel extraction provided a strong tailwind for bipartisan support. The legislation will deliver $4.7 billion nationwide, over the coming decade, to end the ongoing pollution of air, water and soil from abandoned oil and gas wells that pepper the country.
Pennsylvania will get the most of any state from that big new pie to plug old wells, which emit methane and other pollutants that threaten public health and the environment.
To put the funding increase in perspective, consider that Pennsylvania’s Office of Oil and Gas Management has spent a total of $37 million over the last three decades to plug 300 wells — most of them to rectify emergency situations like contaminated water, houses blowing up or methane gas filling up a church.
In contrast, the state Department of Environmental Protection is lining up a batch of 500 wells to plug with just the first $25 million infusion of federal money from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Much of the pollution comes in the form of escaping methane from abandoned natural gas wells. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term — 86 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere when measured over a 20-year period.
In 2016, Stanford University researcher Mary Kang studied 88 abandoned wells in the state and found that 90% were leaking methane. A 2016 paper published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences estimated that abandoned wells were leaking 40,000–70,000 metric tons of methane a year, representing 5–8% of Pennsylvania’s total human-caused methane emissions. Other sources include hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas, livestock, fertilizers, industrial processes, wastewater treatment plants and landfills.
Pennsylvania is believed to have the most lost and abandoned wells of any state. The estimated number of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, based on research by the DEP and others, is far from precise — anywhere from 39,000 to 750,000 sites. The numbers are high partly because the crude oil industry was essentially born in Pennsylvania, in 1859. By 1900, about half of the crude oil on Earth was coming from Pennsylvania.