Ohio is expanding efforts to find and plug orphan wells

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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas is expanding its efforts to find and plug orphan oil and gas wells. 

The state is home to more than 20,000 orphan wells — oil and gas wells without a registered owner responsible for plugging it once its productive life is through. These wells can pose environmental, health and safety hazards to the people living around them.   

Efforts began to grow the state’s orphan well program in 2018, but the federal infrastructure bill passed late last year gave it an extra boost. The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act set aside $4.7 billion for orphan well plugging, remediation and restoration. Of that, an estimated $326 million will be available to Ohio through 2035.

“When money is leveraged with state dollars, we can see huge opportunity for Ohio,” said Eric Vendel, chief of the ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, in a press conference updating the media on the program. 

A 2018 law — House Bill 225 — gave the orphan well program a bump in state funding, increasing the amount earmarked for the program from 14% to 30% of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes. Vendel said if production holds steady over the next 14 years, there should be about $22 million annually in state funding.

The oil and gas division hired more staff and secured more contractors for the program, and the number of wells plugged jumped dramatically.

In 2017, 15 wells were entered into the program and plugged. The next year, 2018, 83 wells went into the program and 31 were plugged. Last year, 202 wells were contracted in the program and 181 were plugged.

To report an orphan well

Call: 330-308-0007

Email: orphanwellprogram@dnr.ohio.gov

With the federal funding available, the division plans to hire more contractors and consultants to help with all parts of the process, including flying drones to locate wells, designing plugging plans and plugging the wells.

The division began using drones with magnetometers in 2018 to locate wells buried under the ground or otherwise lost to history. 

“We’ve had an extreme amount of success with this technology over the years,” said Jason Simmerman, an engineer with the orphan well program.

The division will also launch a public information campaign this spring to get more landowners involved. Historically, landowners have been the ones to find and report wells to the ODNR. Someone with the division comes out to evaluate the well and determine its priority. 

Through the traditional program, the state then takes care of plugging the well by designing a plugging plan and appointing certified contractors to do the work. 

A new component of the orphan well program, also created by HB 225, allows landowners to take action on lower priority wells themselves. The landowner pass-through program lets landowners act as general contractor to hire subs to design and plug the well.

The state then reimburses the well-plugging contractor. The first two applications were received under this new program last fall, and the first well plugged in January, Simmerman said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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