Oil and gas drilling has a long history in the United States, dating back to 1859 when the first successful commercial oil well – Drake Well – was drilled in northwest Pennsylvania. That long history has made state zero for decommissioned wells, which often release dangerous pollutants into the environment and potent greenhouse gases like methane into the air.
It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania – some in the woods, on river banks, on farms, and even in their homes. These wells are left – orphaned to the state – when their owners, often oil and gas companies, go bankrupt or when the wells deteriorate.
Once in the hands of the state, it is the government’s responsibility to plug the wells if they break. The EPA estimates that there could be over 2 million disused wells across the country.
In early June, we followed Don Cornell of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to a 911 call in Bradford City to stop a leaking well in a backyard.
“This old oil and gas well came in because the landowner had a complaint. He noticed he had an oil puddle in his yard,” Cornell explained.
Cornell says most of the wells they handle are from the early 20th century; there is no current owner and the companies have long been bankrupt. “They didn’t care about the wells when they were first drilled and left,” he said.
“I’ve been in this position nearly eleven years now, and I’m still amazed at what we see where the fountains are in the streams – islands on the Allegheny River, there are fountains,” Cornell said.
Even in people’s homes?
“Yes. In basements and foundations they are just everywhere. And their driveway, if they don’t know, until one day oil seeps through their driveway.”
Leaking wells not only pose a local threat to the environment, but can also contribute to the warming of the climate. Dr. Tony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University and an expert in the field, says many of these wells leak methane – a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than carbon dioxide.
“Especially in the first ten years it traps the methane molecule 100 times [the heat] than carbon dioxide,” said Ingraffea. It is therefore imperative to plug these wells: “Turn off methane and you will receive an answer immediately.”
A recent UN report said reducing methane emissions is the “greatest leverage” humanity has in this decade to slow climate change and keep global warming below catastrophic levels.
Cornell says there are over 10,000 documented wells in his state and possibly hundreds of thousands more that are undocumented. But the problem is funding. Pennsylvania currently has an annual budget of approximately $ 1.5 million for this work, but it only covers about 30 wells per year, according to Cornell.
Therefore, the country is hoping for a storm from the federal government. In President Biden’s climate plan, he proposed $ 16 billion to plug wells and clean up abandoned mines. To this day, this funding has survived and turned it into a bipartisan infrastructure agreement.
Cornell said the federal money was “huge” for Pennsylvania. “The general safety aspect. To stop the pollution. The jobs for business owners and citizens to do this job. It would be huge.”
While these wells pose a major environmental threat, experts say they are also a great job creation opportunity, especially for displaced fossil fuel workers.