Steele: Time for DEP to get moving on state orphan well capping program

HARRISBURG, May 9 Continuing her efforts to ensure the planet remains habitable for future generations, state Rep. Mandy Steele is leading a push to get the state’s new orphan well plugging program up and running.

In 2022, measures (introduced by Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean/Cameron/Potter, and Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana) were enacted to create the Orphan Well Plugging Grant Program using money given to the state from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Under Gov. Josh Shapiro’s oversight, more wells have been plugged in 14 months than in the last nine years combined, however, the Department of Environmental Protection has yet to formalize applications or open the grant program.

“Calling this program ‘new’ is relative,” said Steele, D-Allegheny. “The legislation that created the grant program was enacted just about two years ago yet well drillers are still waiting to be able to apply for this program – a program that can spur economic growth while making a huge impact in combatting climate change.”

DEP estimates the state has as many as 760,000 oil and gas wells that have been drilled since 1859, and between 100,000 and 560,000 are unaccounted for in state records. In addition to posing other safety issues, orphan wells leak methane gas into the atmosphere which affects the earth’s temperature and climate. Climate scientists say that addressing methane leaks is urgent. However, DEP is only able to plug a few wells each year.

A surcharge paid by the oil and gas industry for each drilling permit funds the state’s efforts to plug abandoned and orphaned wells.

“That fee doesn’t bring in enough money to do much capping,” Steele said. “This Orphan Well Plugging Grant Program is a real opportunity to reduce the number of wells and keep people working.”

Steele said DEP’s current bidding process shuts out smaller Pennsylvania-based companies, which results in more money spent on a process that smaller operations could do much more cost effectively.

“To be successful in combating climate change as expeditiously as possible, I believe we must work collaboratively with the oil and gas industry, and when we have people with boots on the ground, ready and willing and able to plug orphan conventional gas wells, we should be utilizing these folks. To not use the resources that are already available is ridiculous,” she said.