Orphan wells hard to plug, despite influx of federal dollars

An orphan well is circled in red near the base of a pole barn.
An orphan well (circled in red) was discovered near a barn in Guernsey County. It had been improperly plugged in the past and began to leak. (ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management presentation photo)

ERIE, Pa. —  One was just a hole in the ground in the woods, covered over with leaves. Another was found under a school gymnasium. A farmer hit one while digging pilings for a new barn.

They’re next to creeks and lakes, scattered through farm fields and in people’s front yards. 

“We have many many wells in Ohio we have little to no record for,” said Jason Simmerman, program manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Orphan Well Program. “We really do have orphan wells all over Ohio except the southwest corner.”

Despite the seeming ubiquity of orphan wells, or old abandoned oil and gas wells with no responsible owner, throughout the region, getting them plugged to keep people and the environment safe is an immense challenge, even with an influx of federal dollars to speed up efforts. 

Representatives from the ODNR and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, as well as plugging and environmental contractors, talked about the realities of plugging orphan wells during a panel at the Shale Insight Conference, hosted Sept. 26-28 in Erie, Pennsylvania, by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each received $25 million from the federal government last year to go on an orphan well-plugging blitz, and millions more are coming down the pike. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is pumping more than $4 billion into plugging efforts in states most impacted by legacy oil and gas wells. 


Each state has thousands of orphan wells on the list to be plugged, but there are many more out there that the state knows nothing about, due to the oil and gas industry being mostly unregulated for nearly a century. 

Even locating the wells the states do know about is challenging, said Brad Maddox, vice president of Next LVL Energy, a plugging company owned by Diversified Energy that was contracted by West Virginia to plug 100 wells this year using federal money.

“GPS locations weren’t accurate from state data. Some were underground,” he said. “During the process of trying to find these wells, we found ones that weren’t on the list at all.”

It’s not the state’s fault when this happens. They’re passing on the information they have, which isn’t always the best.

“Can you get to it, do you have to build a road, do you have to cross a stream, is it on a cliff, is it leaking, is it tied into house gas,” he said, listing off other considerations they make once they get on the ground to assess the situation.

Once wells are located, getting permits in a timely manner is another challenge. Simmerman said they have to get the same permits anyone else does, which can be through local, county, state or even federal agencies, depending on the situation.

This process is slow, even for state agencies with millions of dollars at their disposal, and it can be slowed down even more by bad information or discoveries made on the ground.

Dave Wallner, project manager at Civil & Environmental Consultants, talked about a case where initial permits were approved for a project to plug 10 wells that were clustered together. They ran into a hang-up when some of the coordinates for these wells, located in Venango County, Pennsylvania, were 25-30 feet off the mark. 

“That’s kind of a big deal when you’re trying to limit your footprint going from one well to the next,” Wallner said. 

In another case, the contractors had gotten permission from the landowner to use their driveway to access a well, only to find out that the driveway wasn’t properly permitted. Then they had a sight distance issue at the entrance to the access road and had to get permission to clear trees. The landowners approved it but the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had to give its stamp of approval as well.

Dave Wallner, project manager at Civil & Environmental Consultants, talks about challenges they’ve faced when plugging orphan wells in Pennsylvania during a panel discussion at the Shale Insight conference, Sept. 20, in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

What’s next

Pennsylvania has plugged 90 wells, as of Sept. 19, with about 130 more to go, said Don Hegburg, program manager in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s oil and gas program.

Ohio plugged 212 wells so far this year, with another 168 under contract to be completed, Simmerman said. West Virginia plans to plug about 200 wells. Next LVL Energy has plugged nearly 100 already, according to Maddox. 

Simmerman said they doubled the rig count in Ohio this past year to 24. Even with more rigs, it’s tough to get things done without the right people to do the work. Hegburg said contractors in Pennsylvania have similar issues. 

“Our pluggers just lack the workforce in many cases,” Simmerman said.

Though the influx of federal dollars has been a blessing, Hegburg said he’s concerned about where money will come from after infrastructure money runs dry.

“This isn’t going to last forever,” he said. 

States have programs to fund orphan well-plugging efforts, through severance taxes or permitting fees on new drilling activity, but it’s not enough to tackle the full scale of the problem. Ohio has about 19,000 documented orphan wells, but there are estimated to be up to 36,000 across the state. West Virginia has more than 6,000 documented orphan wells. Pennsylvania could have as many as 500,000 orphan wells. 

(Editor Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 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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