Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ohio, Ky. and W.Va. struggle with clean-up of abandoned oil and gas wells; new laws in Ohio and W.Va. may help

An orphan well in Kentucky leaks
decades after being abandoned.
(OVR photo by Brittany Patterson)
State regulators are struggling with the costs of cleaning up an increasing number of abandoned oil and gas wells, especially in states with weak regulations. Such wells can leak oil and other pollutants into water supplies or emit methane, a strong greenhouse gas. A single well can cost from a few thousand dollars to $200,000 to plug, and an Ohio Valley ReSource analysis of state data found more than 8,000 orphan wells in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Brittany Patterson reports for OVR.

"The states are pretty good at regulating wells that are being explored, are being fracked, are in production, but they kind of lose interest once that happens," Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan environmental think tank Resources For the Future, told Patterson. "There's not enough attention being paid to reducing the risk from these abandoned wells."

The problem is a chronic one in Appalachian oil and gas fields, but experts expect the abandoned well problem to get worse because of the hydraulic fracturing boom, since the lifespan of a fracking well is shorter than that of a conventional well.

Funds for plugging wells in Kentucky and West Virginia come from forfeited bonds, which are generally used to plug the worst wells. Kentucky has about $950,000 in its orphan-well fund and has plugged 33 wells since 2012, but Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson Lanny Brannock told Patterson the state is "constantly behind on funding for orphan wells."

"West Virginia’s funding situation is similar. Since 2012, the state has plugged seven wells," Patterson reports. "The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection can use a portion of each $150 well work permit application fee as well as any forfeited bonds to plug orphan wells. Currently, the fund holds approximately $385,000.

New laws in Ohio and West Virginia devote more money toward plugging orphan wells, through different approaches. 

West Virginia's co-tenancy law allows drilling on properties owned by multiple people if at least 75 percent of the owners agree. Royalties for mineral-rights owners who can't be located will be set aside for seven years, and if unclaimed, transferred to the orphan well fund. That could put millions of dollars into the fund, but "experts say the orphan problem will only get worse because West Virginia and other states do not require drillers to pay adequate bonds," Patterson reports.

In 1977, Ohio created an orphan well plugging program. "From the beginning it has been funded with 14 percent of the oil and gas fund, which is supported by a modest severance tax on natural-gas extraction," Patterson reports. "Later this month, a new law will raise the percentage of the fund that must be directed toward orphan wells to 30 percent."

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