Reports: Plugging wells, reclaiming mine land could create thousands of jobs

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oil well sits in forest
An oil well sits in the Allegheny National Forest, in Warren County, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Appalachia’s long history with fossil fuels turned out to be a costly one. A new report by the Ohio River Valley Institute found there are more than half a million abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky that will cost up to $34 billion to plug.

Those costs, though, could provide a “shot in the arm” to the region in terms of employment.

Ted Boettner, author of the report “Repairing the Damage from Hazardous Abandoned Oil & Gas Wells,” said investing the money necessary to remediate the abandoned wells could support 15,000 jobs a year for 20 years.

“It could help people that have lost their jobs over the last couple of years in the industry gain meaningful employment back… and also leave enough room for other people who are often left out of the industry to get in the industry to get jobs doing this,” said Boettner, a senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, during a virtual press conference announcing the results of the report, April 14.

Plugging orphan wells will also improve public safety and health and increase property values, particularly agricultural land, Boettner said.

“A lot of these wells are located on farms,” he said.

The Ohio River Valley put out a second report titled “Repairing the Damage: Cleaning Up the Land, Air, and Water Damaged by the Coal Industry Before 1977” that found an additional 7,000 jobs could be supported over 10 years through a $13 billion injection of cash to reclaim abandoned mine lands.

The reports come on the heels of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan announcement that proposed investing $16 billion to plug orphan wells and clean up abandoned mine land.

Background

Coal powered the country for more than 250 years, and it was largely unregulated for much of that time. It wasn’t until Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, which created the Abandoned Mine Land reclamation program, that a procedure was put in place to repair the damage from two centuries of mining.

Similarly, the oil and gas industry has a long history in Appalachia. The first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.

No federal program exists to manage abandoned oil and gas wells, though. Each state with oil and gas activity has its own set of rules, and funding mechanisms, to handle plugging abandoned and orphan wells. Ohio started its Orphan Well Program in 1977. Pennsylvania’s program didn’t get started until 1985.

Wells

The abandoned and orphan well issue doesn’t just impact Appalachia. The Ohio River Valley Institute report cites figures gathered last year from the EPA and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission that estimated 3.2 million abandoned wells exist nationwide.

Of those, about 2.1 million are thought to be unplugged. At the rate plugging efforts are going now, it will take 900 years to finish the job, Boettner said.

Energy In Depth, a website launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, pushed back against media reports using the 3.2 million figure, saying it was drastically overestimated. The group said the definitions of abandoned, orphaned and idled wells were being conflated.

The thing is, no one really knows who is right and who is wrong. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection states that there could be somewhere between 100,000 and 560,000 wells that are unaccounted for in the state.

In addition to making billions of dollars of investments to plug wells, Boettner suggests creating a federal program, similar to the Abandoned Mine Lands program run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, to manage abandoned wells. State efforts are not moving quickly enough to make a dent, and current bonding requirements on oil and gas companies are not enough to cover future needs, according to the report.

“A federal system that ensure oil and gas operators pay for the clean-up of wells would also level the playing field and ensure states are not engaged in a race to the bottom,” Boettner wrote in the report.

Mine lands

According to the mine lands report, more than 850,000 acres are left to be remediated nationwide, 530,000 of which are in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

There are likely many more mines that are yet undiscovered, said Eric Dixon, author of the report and a research fellow at the Ohio River Valley Institute. The size of the problem will grow as old underground mines deteriorate and possibly collapse.

“There’s a number of sites that we just don’t know about yet,” he said. “A lot of these are on private property… We’re constantly discovering them.”

Dixon will present an hour-long webinar on the report and recommendations at 1 p.m. April 15. Registration can be found here.

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. 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.

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