PA Drillers Don’t Have to Plug Old Wells Before Fracking, For Now

On Oct. 8, after five years in the making, Pennsylvania adopted new shale drilling regulations (see PA’s New Chapter 78a Drilling Regs Go into Effect Oct 8). Although the regs were ready at the end of the Gov. Tom Corbett Administration, Corbett fumbled the ball and the regs didn’t get adopted, which left them vulnerable to the incoming left-leaning Tom Wolf. Wolf’s people mangled the regulations under the Dept. of Environmental Protection Dictator/Secretary John Quigley, who got fired over unethical collusion with Big Green groups (see Smoking Gun: Copy of the Email that Got John Quigley Fired). Some of the good stuff remained, but onerous new elements were introduced. One of the onerous new regulations has to do with abandoned and orphaned wells. PA is dotted with hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells drilled since the first well drilled in 1859. The problem is that the state has only mapped and is aware of under 10,000 of those wells. If a driller happens to horizontally drill through one of those old wells, water and chemicals (more likely methane) can take an express elevator to the surface and come out where it shouldn’t–perhaps contaminating water supplies, among other unfortunate outcomes. The new Chapter 78a regulations attempted to handle the situation by requiring drillers to map and plan for how they will avoid that outcome–by avoiding and plugging any abandoned or orphaned wells up to 1,500 feet away. The problem for drillers is that they often do not own the lease rights and have no legal right to enter land up to 1,500 feet away to conduct surveys and plug wells–a catch 22 situation. And plugging a well isn’t cheap. Should drillers today have to pay for something someone else did decades ago? The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), on behalf of its shale drilling members, sued to stop abandoned well provision (along with several other provisions), which a judge agreed to do, at least for now until a full trial can decide the issue (see PA Judge Temporarily Blocks Some DEP Chapter 78a Drilling Regs). The judge put a temporary order blocking the abandoned/orphaned well provision in November, and upheld that block again in December. For the time being, Marcellus drillers do not have to map and plug old wells that don’t belong to them…

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