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Lee highlights Pennsylvania’s abandoned gas wells problem

Cliff Simmons, an oil and gas inspector supervisor for the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection, discusses an abandoned well with property owner Pamela Schank, center, and Rep. Summer Lee (PA-12), right, in Murrysville on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Lee's district diretor Brandon Forbes listens in the background. (Credit: Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve Mellon, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 28, 2024

The abandoned well on Pamela and Ivan Schrank’s property didn’t look like much, just a few old, weathered pipes jutting from the ground in a wooded corner of their 1.75 acres in Murrysville. They knew about the well’s presence when they bought their house and property in May 2023, but were told it was capped and wouldn’t be an issue.

Last fall, Pamela learned the old pipes were indeed a problem. While gardening near the well on a hot day, she became overwhelmed by a pungent odor she recognized as a gas.

“I got so dizzy, I almost fainted,” she said. “I panicked and ran inside and called the gas company. They came out right away, but they said, ‘This doesn’t belong to us.’ They said to call the municipality, so I did, I called Murrysville.”

An employee there researched the well and told her it was orphaned, meaning no owner could be found. Pamela was told to contact the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Pennsylvania is home to a staggering number of abandoned wells. The DEP has located about 27,000, but says that’s just a portion of the abandoned wells actually out there. An additional 350,000 abandoned wells remain undocumented, DEP officials say, though that’s just an estimate. Some say the number may be much higher. 

Only Texas has more abandoned wells than Pennsylvania.

Abandoned wells can be dangerous – to people and the environment.

On Thursday morning, a cluster of visitors – DEP officials, reporters and photographers and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (D-12th District) – walked down the sloping backyard of the Schranks’ property and gathered about 15 feet from the well. Cliff Simmons, an oil and gas inspector supervisor for the DEP, stepped forward and pointed a gun-shaped sensor at the well. A high pitched beeping sound indicated the presence of methane.

“It smells terrible,” said Lee, whose district covers Murrysville. 

 Cliff Simmons, an oil and gas inspector supervisor for the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection, points a methane sensor at an abandoned well on the Murrysville property of Pamela and Ivan Schrank on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Simmons visited the well site with other DEP officials, journalists and Rep. Summer Lee (PA-12). (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Simmons explained that methane is odorless, but gas leaking from abandoned wells in the area often picks up a petroleum smell. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it can be explosive, but Simmons wasn’t too worried on this day. 

“It may sound a bit strange, but the fact that this is leaking is really a good thing in that the gas is coming to the surface and being dissipated,” Simmons said. Methane trapped under the surface, however, can migrate into homes. There, it can become dangerous, he said.

Methane isn’t the only issue. Lee pointed to a study that found some abandoned wells in the region emit cancer-causing benzene and other toxic chemicals. “We already understand that, in Western Pennsylvania, we have higher rates of asthma, COPD, cancer,” Lee said. “This is one of those causes, too, that we’re starting to be able to identify.”

The well on the Schranks’ property dates to sometime between 1905 and 1920, Simmons estimated, and is approximately 1,400 feet deep. There are no records indicating who once owned the well.

Capping these abandoned wells is expensive – about $100,000 per well, though the DEP is working to adjust contracts to lower the cost. One problem is that few companies do the work.  DEP officials are hoping more companies enter the field as funding to deal with the wells continues to flow.

Historically, the DEP has spent about $1 million each year plugging abandoned wells, but that has increased with money available from the Biden administration’s 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“We got $25 million with the initial grant last year,” said Dan Counahan, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Operations. “We anticipate $76 million a year for the next four years.”

Federal funds helped the state plug 139 abandoned wells last year. Work on capping the well on the Schranks’ property should begin this summer, Simmons said.

Lee and Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Oklahoma) introduced a bill last summer that addresses some of the issues surrounding abandoned wells. The Bipartisan Abandoned Well Remediation Research and Development Act creates an office within the Dept. of Energy that would help identify, find and plug abandoned wells as well as create a better understanding of the level of methane emitted by the wells.

That bill passed out of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in September on a unanimous and bipartisan vote and now awaits a vote by the full House.

“There is an interest,” Lee said. “It’s a good thing to see that both parties are recognizing the issue we have here, and the need to remedy it. So I hope we can get some reinforcements soon because this seems like a monumental task.”

Despite the dysfunction plaguing Congress these days, Lee said she’s hopeful about the bill’s future.

“Fingers crossed,” she said. “As this Congress wraps up this year, we know a lot of people will be distracted because of their campaigns. But to have attention and eyes on this…I think we can get some movement on it.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.