Plugging Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells in Pennsylvania: A Game of Whack- A- Mole

Despite the Shapiro administration’s increased efforts to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells, conventional drillers continue to abandon their wells at a rate faster than the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection can plug them. Unless the DEP’s Oil and Gas program is given adequate staffing to properly police conventional drillers and the ability to increase bonding amounts to ensure drillers fulfill their well plugging obligations, taxpayer money – both federal and state – will continue to be wasted on DEP’s well plugging efforts.

DEP estimates that there are more than 200,000 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. According to a December 2022 DEP report: “Unplugged or improperly plugged wells can cause a myriad of problems, including gas migration into occupied structures, water supply impacts, surface water impacts, hazardous air pollutant emissions, methane emissions, and soil and groundwater contamination. Improperly plugged wells have been tied to fatal explosions…” (source)

The Shapiro administration recently announced it has plugged 137 wells in 2023. (source) And while this certainly is a step in the right direction, DEP data indicates that between Jan. 1, 2017, and October 2023, at least 1,080 oil and gas wells were abandoned and possibly as many as 741 more. Conventional drillers are abandoning their wells at a much faster rate than the DEP is plugging them.

DEP’s December 2022 report indicated that it “…has identified significant non-compliance with laws and regulations in the conventional oil and gas industry, particularly regarding improper abandonment of oil and gas wells.” The report went on to state that “It cannot be emphasized strongly enough, however, that increased oversight of the conventional oil and gas industry and enforcement will require additional resources for the Department, especially in the DEP Office of Chief Counsel and the Bureau of District Oil and Gas Operations.” (source)

Conventional oil and gas wells have been around since the 1800’s and usually involve vertical drilling as distinguished from the newer unconventional wells which require horizontal drilling.

DEP’s Oil and Gas program has the responsibility to inspect about 102,060 oil and gas wells. (source) In 2015, DEP’s Oil and Gas program had 226 filled positions. The program is currently down to 171 positions due to declining revenue. DEP simply does not have the staff to compel drillers to plug their wells. Moreover, the workload of the Oil and Gas program is increasing every year. At the same time, revenue to pay for the program is decreasing as drillers apply for fewer new permits.

The cost of hiring additional staff is not the issue. Pennsylvania is projected to have a $14 billion surplus at the end of this fiscal year. (source)

In addition to lack of staffing, inadequate bonding requirements for conventional wells have contributed to their abandonment. For conventional wells drilled after April 15, 1985, Pennsylvania law requires drillers to post a bond which could be forfeited to cover the cost of plugging should the well be abandoned. Act 96 of 2022 removed the authority of the DEP to increase bonding amounts above $2,500 per well for 10 years. (source) DEP estimates it costs on average $33,000 to plug a conventional well. (source) This $2,500 bonding amount is woefully inadequate to ensure drillers meet their plugging obligations. I have introduced legislation (H.B. 962) to restore the DEP’s authority to increase bonding amounts.

Pennsylvania is set to receive up to $400 million over the next 10 years through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for well plugging. (source) Unless Pennsylvania can stop conventional drillers from abandoning their wells, DEP efforts to plug wells will become a game of “Whack -A -Mole” with newly abandoned wells popping up faster than old ones are being plugged. Taxpayer dollars will be wasted.

The Pennsylvania House, when it introduces its budget bill in the upcoming months, should provide funding to restore the DEP’s Oil and Gas program to its full complement of 226 positions. The House should also pass H.B. 962 to restore DEP’s authority to increase bonding amounts.

State Representative Greg Vitali (D- Delaware) is Majority Chairman of the Pennsylvania House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee