Orphan Well Plugging Program is opportunity to work collaboratively with oil and gas industry to benefit the environment

In 1859, the first oil well was drilled in Titusville, PA. That action by Edwin Drake sparked what has become the modern global petroleum industry. Since then, oil and gas wells have proliferated throughout Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, so too has the number of abandoned and orphaned wells.

The Department of Environmental Protection has identified more than 20,000 abandoned wells and nearly 7,000 orphaned wells, but DEP estimates the state has between 100,000 and 560,000 more wells that are not documented.

If left unplugged, orphaned and abandoned wells can be dangerous, not only if someone accidentally happens upon one, but because they can leak toxic chemicals like oil, gas, arsenic, benzene and hydrogen sulfide into our air, groundwater and soil. Unplugged wells can also leak highly flammable methane gas, posing a fire danger and contributing to climate change.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has made it a priority to address the problem of these wells. In the first 14 months of his administration, he’s already plugged more wells than in the last nine years combined. But as an outdoorswoman and environmentalist, I believe it’s imperative that we do all we can to address these hazards.

That’s why I am supporting a program initiated by Republican legislation that will enable more orphaned wells to be plugged, not only more cheaply than the current process, but also in greater number.

In 2022, Republican Reps. Martin Causer and Jim Struzzi introduced bills to create a state program using money designated by the federal government to support DEP’s well plugging efforts. Under the federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, Pennsylvania is due to receive as much as $400 million for capping orphaned oil and gas wells.

Acts 96 and 136 became law in July and November 2022, respectively. Both dictate that 20% of those millions be used for a grant program to reimburse conventional well drillers for plugging orphaned wells. This program is a real opportunity to address an urgent environmental issue, keep people working and empower well drillers -- the people who have the tools and knowhow to cap wells.

I’m encouraging DEP to get the Orphan Well Plugging Grant Program up and running, because every delay means more toxic chemicals in our air, water and soil, and more greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. The impacts of climate change are well known, from rising temperatures and poor air and water quality to floods that threaten communities and droughts that stunt farmers’ crops.

Despite these threats, until the infusion of federal money, the state had limited resources -- paid for by a surcharge enacted in 1984 and levied on the oil and gas industry for each drilling permit obtained -- to pay for capping orphaned wells. This program will help DEP further its mission in protecting our air, land and water from pollution and ensuring Pennsylvanians’ health and safety through a cleaner environment.

It may be hard to believe that a Democrat and avowed environmentalist is getting behind a Republican law that helps drillers. However, to be successful in combating climate change, we must work together and empower the industry in as clean a way as possible, especially when, as here, a more expeditious route exists.

We don’t have the luxury of being dogmatic in our approach. The planet is being destroyed and we must act now if we want it to be around for our children, grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.