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Making Waves — Pennsylvania

May 28, 2024

Climate problems may seem overwhelming, but people all around this great nation are taking action. This week we’re looking at PENNSYLVANIA and the question is: How does plugging orphaned gas wells help with climate change?

We’ve all seen abandoned wells in PA, the relics of drilling days past, many of which date back to the late 1800s. Pump jacks rusting near the road like giant pecking bird toys cast aside in the woods, or the mysterious tripping hazard: a simple pipe sticking up along a backwoods trail.

When fossil fuels are extracted from the earth, gases including methane can escape into the atmosphere. Some wells only target natural gas. Other times drilling operators choose to pump gases and fluids back into the ground (injection wells) to force more oil out. Over time, productive wells become “stripper fields” – drilling sites at the end of their life cycle – whose maximum resources have been pulled out of the ground. These symbols evoke days when PA sweet crude was the economic driver in our region. Fossil fuel allows industrial expansion, makes our homes more livable, and powers our vehicles. Wells aren’t just symbols of the past; for many, they are the link to ongoing livelihood. On the flip side, we are choking the world that gives us these resources. A real mess lies in our wake. When does the price tag become prohibitive? Can we mitigate the bad effects?

Once wells cease being productive, many are abandoned and become, essentially, wards of the state. Abandoned wells are more than eyesores and tripping hazards: left unplugged, they can pollute water supplies and/or contaminate soils, in addition to releasing greenhouse gases into the air, worsening global warming.

Drillers aren’t specially incentivized to take the final step to plug wells after they have pulled the resources out of the ground, despite this being a step that is required in most states. Company profits have already diminished as wells become less productive. In this week’s featured podcast, you’ll hear someone ask rhetorically if drillers or the companies who put them on contract have no sense of pride in fulfilling their job responsibilities. The US National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) estimates that there are somewhere between 470,000-750,000 abandoned wells in PA and that between 5%-8% of Pennsylvania’s methane emissions stem from abandoned oil/gas wells. No trace of pride in these practices: it belies a ‘take and waste’ mentality, with people at many levels shirking their duty.

The challenge is to identify which wells have the most significant amounts of methane off-gassing. Not only does capping/plugging these wells bring the most environmental benefit; but it also becomes an economically viable pursuit, using the carbon credit system which trades on cutting CO2-equivalent emissions (COE2). Emissions, in some cases, can be worth enough in carbon credits to reap profit in spite of the well-capping project costs.

The nonprofit Well Done Foundation (WDF) is one company that is doing exactly that. WDF, based in Montana, tests wells for emissions to locate the most egregious emitters and then monitors selected wells for about 6 months before plugging them. In the meantime, they build partnerships with local organizations (such as the French Creek Valley Conservancy in the case of a well WDF recently pugged on in Waterford). If you want to learn about carbon credit trading, explore for more info.

There are over 2 million abandoned wells in the US. If you visit the WDF website, you’ll see the impact of the COE2 eliminated: over half a million metric tons eliminated by the wells plugged in 2022. There’s a gallery of current and past well projects featured at the site, including PA wells.

The following interview with the head of the Well Done Foundation is an interesting and insightful way to learn about well plugging and what motivates people to take positive action for the environment. Scroll down to find the episode, from the link to the podcast.
Podcast: Pennsylvania Legacies, Pennsylvania Environmental Council (Jan. 20, 2023)
Episode: Plugging Away [~22 mins]

Let me know if you have a podcast to recommend, have a comment about my column, or have trouble finding a particular podcast I’ve mentioned. Happy listening!
[email protected]

Note: This column, part of a series looking at examples of positive climate action, state-by-state, first appeared in the Forest County News Journal 03-01-2023. If you are interested in this state’s topic, check online for updated news, as a lot may have changed in a year and a quarter.

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