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Pennsylvania gains new abandoned gas wells as it sets records capping old ones

An abandoned oil well in Cornplanter State Forest.
Reid R. Frazier
StateImpact Pennsylvania
An abandoned oil well in Cornplanter State Forest.

Federal money helped Pennsylvania plug 139 abandoned oil and gas wells last year. That’s more than in the eight years before that.

Despite the state awarding more than $23 million in contracts to plug those wells in 2023, the number of abandoned wells continues to grow.

Last year, the Department of Environmental Protection issued 512 notices of violation to conventional operators for abandoning wells without plugging them, according to former DEP Secretary David Hess, who documents the violations on his environmental news blog.

The information is available on DEP’s website, but it can be hard to interpret. Hess spends a good chunk of his retirement reading through oil and gas site inspection reports, tallying up raw data from the inspections.

Some wells rack up the same violation year after year, and never get plugged.

“They’re always adding new abandoned wells to their inventory. If they had more inspectors and did more inspections, they’d find more abandoned wells. And that’s very very clear out there,” Hess said, noting DEP has long been understaffed.

Hess said it doesn’t make sense to him to spend taxpayer money to clean up wells while more are being abandoned.

“You’ve got to deal with the problems that are causing these wells to be abandoned,” he said.

Those problems include weak laws that limit DEP’s enforcement power and operators that don’t have the money to plug wells, at least in part because of the low bond amount required per well. Conventional drillers only need to secure a bond of $2,500 per well for future clean up, though the real cost can be much higher. Plugging costs $30,000 per well, on average, according to the DEP. The difference between the bond and the actual cost falls to the operator.

Federal money earmarked for orphan and abandoned wells must be used to clean up and restore those sites.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s spokesperson said it’s not an “either-or issue.” In a statement, Manuel Bonder said the DEP is “ramping up enforcement action against operators” who walk away from wells without plugging them.

Environmental groups had petitioned the state’s environmental oversight board to raise the bond amount, but in 2022 the legislature passed a law prohibiting the board from adjusting rates. The Sierra Club and others are now suing the Shapiro Administration and General Assembly over the law, saying it prevents the commonwealth from protecting communities from the harm caused by abandoned wells.

It’s estimated the state has more than 200,000 abandoned wells, which leak planet-warming methane and have the potential to pollute waterways.

Hess said, as of Feb. 16, DEP has issued new or continued 103 notices of violation for conventional oil and gas well abandonment so far this year.

DEP did not return a request for comment on how many wells cited last year were ultimately plugged by the operator.

DEP knows abandonment is a persistent issue. In a December 2022 report on industry compliance, it said inspectors found more than 3,000 newly-abandoned wells in a five-year period. It was the most frequent violation.

That report made recommendations for letting the agency take enforcement action more quickly. But, Hess said, he hasn’t seen any information on what’s resulted from that.

DEP’s annual report on the oil and gas industry for 2022 said 671 notices for failing to plug a well were issued to conventional operators that year.

Pennsylvania could get more than $300 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for well plugging over the next decade. The Shapiro Administration announced in December it got another $44 million through the Inflation Reduction Act for the effort.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 2024-25 budget proposal also gives $11 million from the General Fund to continue finding and capping abandoned wells.