President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan includes a massive investment in the cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells. Under the plan, $16 billion would be set aside specifically for the task.
Abandoned wells are, as the name suggests, oil and gas wells that are no longer active, but remain uncapped. They are often referred to as “orphaned” wells, because in many cases, there is no oil or gas company claiming the well who would normally be legally required to cap the well. Oil and gas companies have been required to post a bond to ensure plugging of the inactive well. However, that amount often is much less than the actual cost and, in addition, some wells in Pennsylvania were drilled more than a century ago by companies no longer in existence.
There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells across the country, but they are most common in states with a lot of oil and gas extraction. Pennsylvania alone is estimated to have approximately 200,000 abandoned wells. Pennsylvania has their own well plugging program through the Department of Environmental Protection, which is funded largely by Act 13 Impact Fee revenues.
Abandoned wells are an issue for several reasons. They pose a significant safety hazard at the surface and underground. As many of these wells were drilled decades, if not a century ago, they often are excluded from modern well maps because no one knows they exist, which could pose a threat to people or wildlife on the surface. Beneath the surface, old wells could be unstable and lead to land stabilization issues and the leaking of harmful chemicals into groundwater supplies.
The main concern with abandoned wells, though, are their fugitive methane emissions. Wells that are not capped or plugged, can release methane, a key contributor to climate change, unabated into the atmosphere. This reality is the root of the intent behind President Biden’s plan.
The orphaned well cleanup plan extends beyond wells and includes abandoned coal and hard rock mines, which also pose safety hazards. The $16 billion would be used to create jobs to clean up the wells. In a statement, President Biden noted that he wants to offer these jobs to miners and other laborers who are out of work “at the same price they would charge to dig those wells”. According to the White House website, the plan would create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
While there is bipartisan support, as well as support from the oil and gas industry, for the plan, some lawmakers have taken issue with the spending.
Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming is quoted arguing that the entire infrastructure plan is “an out-of-control socialist spending spree”. On the contrary, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia hails the plan, particularly the orphaned well plan as crucial to his state’s environmental and public health.
As the orphan well plan is part of the larger infrastructure overhaul, there will be some time before its fate is known. Given the legislative process, there is the possibility that the infrastructure plan in whole will not be passed, or there could be significant changes to the proposed plan.