Harrisburg, Pa. — Two bills have passed the state House aiming to increase the number of orphan wells being plugged while also limiting the liability of the companies that abandoned them.
Orphan wells are natural gas and oil wells that have been abandoned by the natural gas industries.
“We have well over 200,000 orphan wells [according to a 2018 DEP report] in Pennsylvania, and some years the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is plugging as few as five wells,” State Rep. Martin Causer said, during debate in the House chamber.
“With federal infrastructure money on the way to the Commonwealth, we finally have an opportunity to accelerate our well-plugging efforts, which will benefit both the environment and our communities.”
In a post on his blog, David E. Hess, former secretary for the PA Department of Environmental Protection, said both House Bill 2644 and House Bill 2528 "are total giveaways to the conventional oil and gas industry."
He went on saying the bills "continue to make taxpayers liable for cleaning up billions of dollars of the environmental mess they leave behind."
The bills were both passed June 20 in a mostly party line vote with Democrats opposed and Republicans for.
While a majority of the federal funds would go into DEP’s existing program, House Bill 2644 would also require the agency to create a new initiative to provide grants to well-plugging companies that work to maximize the volume of orphan wells being plugged in the Commonwealth.
The bill would also make it so wells drilled prior to April, 1985 would not require any plugging bond. Hess, in the same post, said that most unplugged wells were drilled prior to 1985.
Grants of $10,000 would be awarded for plugging wells of 3,000 feet or less in depth, and grants of $20,000 would be awarded for plugging wells more than 3,000 feet deep.
The bill also would address well bonding amounts—the agreement between the natural gas company and the state—by altering the current bonding amounts for conventional wells that are in law and making it so the Environmental Quality Board cannot adjust these amounts by regulation.
The bonding amount for conventional wells would be limited $2500, which Hess said cost taxpayers an average of $30,000 to plug per well. Operators would also be able to apply for a blanket $25,000 bond for all their wells inside the state.
The Environmental Quality Board had accepted the proposal of a study in November that looked to increase bonding amounts to a value in line with costs to taxpayers.
The House also approved House Bill 2528, which would boost the use of Pennsylvania-based businesses in the process of plugging wells. This would mandate the DEP to award well plugging contracts to any company that submits them.
Currently, contracts are restricted to companies with more than 125 employees.
Since 2018, the DEP has plugged 32 wells.
The measures now go to the Senate for consideration.