The Department of Interior has recently announced its plans to invest $33 million specifically for plugging orphaned or abandoned wells. The funds come from the Biden Administration’s $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in late 2021. Orphaned or abandoned wells are an issue for the country, particularly in Pennsylvania. Nationally, the Department of Interior (DOI) estimates that there are 130,000 orphaned or abandoned wells. Estimations of the number of orphaned wells that exist in Pennsylvania are varied widely, from approximately 9,000 wells to over one hundred thousand. The actual number of orphaned or abandoned wells national and within the Commonwealth is unknown. The lack of definitive knowledge on orphaned well counts is concerning, considering the potential for danger that these types of wells pose to the public and environment. Orphaned wells are, as the name suggests, oil or gas wells that are no longer in use, and have been abandoned by the owner. At the end of a well’s useful life, it is usually plugged, or capped, to seal off the well and prevent any leakage. However, throughout the last century, an unknown, though suspected to be high, number of wells have gone unplugged. These unplugged wells can create a multitude of problems, ranging from environmental damage to explosions. The DOI’s $33 million investment is part of a larger $250 million interstate well-cleaning program and takes direct aim at the issue. This step in the overall program specifically “addresses 277 high-priority polluting wells that pose threats to human health and safety, the climate and wildlife”. In a press release on the investment, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Laura Daniel-Davis stressed the salience of the issue, stating “millions of Americans live within a mile of hundreds of thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells… [which] jeopardize public health and safety”. Orphaned wells located on federal lands have been specifically prioritized for clean-up in this effort, including eighteen well sites in the Allegheny National Forest.
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