PA DEP Tries to Convince Landowners/Drillers to Plug Orphan Wells

Earlier this week MDN told you about a new bill that passed the Ohio legislature and now awaits Gov. John Kasich’s signature called House Bill 225, which triples the amount of money set aside to cap orphan wells in the Buckeye State (see OH Orphan Well Bill Wins Praise from Both Drillers & Enviros). The bill also “creates a more streamlined and efficient process for identifying and plugging” orphan wells. The amazing thing about the bill is this: both Big Green groups and the drilling industry support it! So-called orphan wells are old conventional oil and gas wells that have been abandoned (for decades). They are hazards for shale drillers who stumble across them when drilling new wells. If you drill horizontally and clip an old/abandoned well, it becomes like an elevator pumping fluids and gas to the surface. Ohio has an estimated 600 orphan wells. In Pennsylvania, it’s a whole other story. PA has some 200,000 orphan wells! The main issue in PA has been who will pay to cap them? Most of PA’s orphan wells are not mapped or known. Yet some of them are known–by the landowners on whose land they sit. A second (very important) issue in PA is that if a landowner or driller tries to cap an orphan well they come across, the party doing the work may be liable if there are any environmental impacts from the effort. Let’s see, nobody to pay for it–and if you assume all the legal risk. It’s a recipe for “Don’t touch that orphan well with a 10 foot pole!” In what is too coincidental to be a coincidence, the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection has just launched a program “encouraging private-sector partners to become Good Samaritans, by participating in a program that helps cap dangerous abandoned oil and gas wells statewide.” Was the DEP goaded into doing something about orphan wells after seeing the success Ohio is having? Whether coincidence or not, the DEP is telling landowners and drillers: If you pay for it and plug it yourself, first getting the DEP’s “mother may I?” permission, you will not be on the hook legally (i.e. can’t be sued) later on if “this old well” ends up harming the environment…

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