One of the drawbacks to birthing the modern oil industry is that Pennsylvania’s woods are pocked by thousands of decrepit and polluting wells.
Out of these wells, oil and brine can burble up onto land and into surface waters. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, vents into the atmosphere.
Closing these scars in the landscape has obvious benefits, but it’s not cheap.
Plugging just one old oil well costs $10,000, said David Hill, a board member of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.
Hill spoke in Monday’s meeting of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
The wells in question far predate Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling renaissance of the past decade.
Titusville’s famous Drake Well dates to 1859, and some of the crumbling wells causing concern today were drilled by Civil War veterans, said Tyler Martin, environmental care coordinator at Cameron Energy Co. in Clarendon.
To make matters worse, no one knows how many old wells Pennsylvania has.
Many were drilled before the state’s modern permitting system existed.
A number of wells became invisible when their steel was ripped out for scrap during World War II, Martin said.
As a result, the Department of Environmental Protection says at least 100,000 deteriorating wells are essentially lost.
A Slow Moving Solution
Some of those wells have sealed up on their own, Hill said.
But even to plug one of the state’s thousands of known wells, cost is not the only challenge. Many sit near trout streams or other environmentally sensitive areas, Martin said.
Drilling companies are making slow progress plugging the old wells with their own resources, often without government reimbursement.
“This is our backyard. We care about it,” Martin said.
But many of Pennsylvania’s drillers are small family businesses. They don’t have the equipment or employees to cross off a lot of wells, Hill said.
The state’s well-plugging program isn’t moving any faster. Last year’s appropriation was only enough to cover 17 wells, said Rep. Greg Vitali, the top Democrat on the committee.
Well plugging could become more challenging as Pennsylvania’s oil industry sees a steep decline in new wells as a result of low commodity prices, and faces growing pressure from solar, wind and other energy sources.
Hill argued that the oil and gas industry will continue to be necessary because it produces a host of byproducts, including materials used in medical protective equipment.
He also argued that competing technologies have serious drawbacks, such as the disposal of lithium in the batteries of electric cars and a reliance on fossil-fuel oil to lubricate wind turbines.
Committee Chairman Rep. Daryl Metcalfe dismissed renewable energy as “sci fi” and “pie in the sky.”
“That push is to ultimately destroy the industry that creates the byproducts that we actually use in everyday life,” said Metcalfe, R-Cranberry Township.
But Vitali, D-Haverford Township, said that achieving carbon neutrality requires neither the elimination of fossil fuels nor the end of the byproducts needed to make lubricants or medical gear.
“You can nitpick all you want at potential problems which are very solvable, but they can and will be solved,” Vitali said.