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How Does New York Clean Up Its 200 Year Fossil Fuel Production Legacy?

In President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, one of his environmental planks is to spend $16 billion to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells throughout the nation.  Three questions probably are coming to your lips right now.  What is an orphaned well?  Why isn’t the petrochemical industry forced to clean up their mess?  And finally, $16 BILLION?? What kind of boondoggle is that?

The next three paragraphs will give you the answer to your questions, but let’s start with the question you didn’t ask.  How is this environmental?  The estimates in 2020 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that the identified unplugged wells leaked about 280,000 tons of methane.  This is the greenhouse gas equivalent of all of the power plants in Massachusetts.  This does not count the uncatalogued wells that were drilled before states began regulating methane and oil exploration.  In addition, unplugged wells can contaminate groundwater and foul farmlands as they age.

These uncatalogued wells get added to the orphaned well list when identified.  This status is given to sites where the state cannot locate the current owner.   Many are 100-150 year old wells drilled by wildcat operators and abandoned long ago.  Others sites were originally drilled by a major oil company and sold to a smaller company when the yields decreased.  When the wells dry up, these smaller companies often declare bankruptcy, leaving the well ownerless and the state responsible for the cleanup.

Today, oil and gas companies are required to post a bond to cover the costs of plugging the new wells drilled.  But according to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, these bonds cover only a tiny fraction of the expected costs of cleaning up their handiwork.  The industry has one more way to avoid paying for the end of life for their wells.  They classify unproductive wells as “idled.”  Federal and state regulations have no timetable for this status, allowing the industry to avoid cleanups indefinitely. 

The EPA estimates that there could be more than 3 million abandoned wells across the United States.

The EPA estimates that there could be more than 3 million abandoned wells across the United States.   As for the $16 billion proposed in the American Jobs Plan, believe it or not, this is a fraction of what will be needed to plug non-producing wells.  A recently released study commissioned by the New Mexico State Land Office says that it could cost the state $8.38 billion to clean up their tens of thousands of wells and pipeline infrastructure.  The cleanup fund in New Mexico only has $201 million.  

Before you think this is a far-off problem, remember that Western New York and Western Pennsylvania is the US birthplace of the oil and gas industry.  Many know that the first oil well was drilled in Titusville, PA in 1859.  Much lesser known is that this is the 200th anniversary of the first natural gas well in the US, was dug by William Hart in Fredonia in 1821.  

New York was the first state in the nation in 1879 to require producers to plug oil and gas wells at the end of their economic life.  But due to inadequate enforcement of the statute, as well as plugging techniques like stuffing the well with tree stumps and tamped clay, many of these older wells still bring oil or methane to the surface.   The NYS DEC has estimated that more than 75,000 wells have been drilled in the state.  The DEC only has records for a little more than half that number.

The NYS DEC has estimated that more than 75,000 wells have been drilled in the state.  The DEC only has records for a little more than half that number.

Many of the gas wells are in Chautauqua and Erie Counties.  The wells have been around so long that our communities have grown up around them.  Unlike the first well in Fredonia, dug next Mr. Hart’s residence on West Main Street, places like ECMC (listed as a wildcat mine by the DEC and owned by the City of Buffalo) and the South Campus of the University at Buffalo (plugged in 1986) were built around the pre-existing well.  

The DEC has records of 2,200 abandoned wells, but admits the number is likely much higher due to the incomplete records.  Like the previously referenced cleanup fund in New Mexico, our state’s fund is chronically short of funds to make an impact on capping non-producing wells.  To show how underfunded it is, the DEC website shows their program has plugged only 50 natural gas and 210 oil wells since 2014 across the state.  

The Department of Energy shows that natural gas is produced in 32 states.  Now is the time for our representatives to take proactive action to ensure the criteria for distributing the dedicated cleanup funds from the American Jobs Plan are allocated on the basis of the oldest orphan wells.  This would put states like New York and Pennsylvania at the top of the list for the economic and environmental benefits of the signature stimulus program of the Biden Administration.

Written by John Szalasny

John Szalasny

John Szalasny is someone who cares about our planet. Born too late to join in on the first wave of organized environmental action in the 60’s, I’m making up for lost time as I get nearer to retirement on various environmental concerns including the plastic waste crisis. Check out my Facebook group Bring NYC’s Styrofoam Ban to My Hometown!

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