Ten decaying oil and gas wells, long abandoned by their owners, will be sealed shut and cleaned up in Allegheny County beginning early next year.
The orphan well-plugging project is one of the first in Pennsylvania to be funded by a 2021 federal infrastructure law that promises to spend an unprecedented amount to clean up hazardous, polluting wells that litter the commonwealth.
The project to cement shut just 10 wells in Allegheny County — out of 27,000 abandoned wells documented by Pennsylvania regulators and roughly 200,000 that are yet to be found — demonstrates the challenge of cleaning up the scattershot remnants of past drilling booms.
Legacy oil and gas fields left behind over a century are now neighborhoods, public parks, golf courses, farms and forests. Old wells have been broken down by rust and overtaken by dirt, brush and shifting property uses.
The 10 wells in Sewickley Heights and Emsworth boroughs and Moon, Ohio, Kilbuck and Ross townships will cost roughly $1.5 million to plug, according to the winning bid, which was submitted by West Virginia-based Hydrocarbon Well Services Inc.
The Department of Environmental Protection still is finalizing the contract, which should be issued in mid- to late January, spokeswoman Lauren Camarda said.
Several of the abandoned wells to be plugged are on steep wooded hillsides. Visible sections of the wells’ steel casings are pitted or collapsing from rust.
Many are leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas and an explosion hazard when it collects in confined spaces.
A DEP inspector found gas venting through an accumulation of “wet, oily debris” at one of the project wells in Ohio Township last year “at a constant rate that can be smelled and heard ‘boiling’ several feet away.”
One of the wells is buried beneath the asphalt driveway of a home in Emsworth.
Another is near a sand trap at the Shannopin Country Club, covered by dirt and well-groomed turf between holes nine and 10.
(“Will the contractor have to provide some sort of protection to keep stray golf balls from entering the work area?” one plugging company asked before submitting a bid. No, DEP answered, because plugging will occur during the winter when the course is closed.)
The Allegheny County project is one of five that has been put out for bid so far to spend an initial grant of $25 million that was awarded by the U.S. Department of the Interior in August.
In addition to the Allegheny County wells, the first contracts will plug 24 wells in Butler County, 37 wells in McKean County and eight wells in Potter County.
The winning bids for the five contracts totaled about $5.8 million, or about $75,000 per well, Kurt Klapkowski, DEP’s acting deputy secretary for oil and gas, told an advisory board in early December.
“One of our goals, obviously, is to plug as many wells as we can, as efficiently as we can,” he said.
To do that, the agency has picked from the 50 highest-priority orphan wells — those that pose the greatest threat to public safety or the environment, because they could channel flammable gas into homes or oil into streams — and bundled them into plugging contracts with nearby lower risk wells.
That way, contractors save on labor, equipment and supply costs compared to mobilizing to plug a single well at a time.
The department plans to plug nearly 300 wells over the next year with the initial $25 million grant.
As part of that effort, the agency is developing nine more bid packages to plug 158 abandoned wells for about $12 million in Armstrong, Washington, Venango, Forest, Clarion and McKean counties, Klapkowski said.
It also plans to dedicate about $2.8 million of the grant money to plug about 40 wells in Cornplanter State Forest, in Forest, Crawford and Warren counties, in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The initial grant is just the start of the money Pennsylvania is poised to receive from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for finding and plugging abandoned wells over the next decade.
DEP estimates that Pennsylvania could be eligible for as much as $400 million from the law that was signed by President Joe Biden last year.
Despite having one of the largest accumulations of unplugged abandoned wells in the country, Pennsylvania’s plugging program has been chronically underfunded. Between 2017 and 2021, DEP had money to plug just 54 wells.
“It’s definitely great that they have the funding and are able to go out and take care of these old abandoned wells, because they do pose a hazard to people,” said Scott Brilhart, planning director for Moon.
One of the wells to be plugged in the Allegheny County project is on an open space parcel of land owned by Moon, below a residential neighborhood and upslope from University Boulevard.
The site is steep and forested, according to DEP records, and will have to be cleared of some trees to make way for the plugging rig. The well is leaking gas and “covered with oily fluid,” DEP records show. An engine, pumpjack and collapsed derrick are nearby.
The well under the pavement of Ralph Molenda’s driveway in Emsworth is the high-priority well anchoring the Allegheny County project.
Molenda said he’s lived at the property for about 30 years and, other than a small amount of gas in his water, “I’ve had no ill effects at all.”
The well was discovered decades ago, he said, when a gas leak detected up the street was eventually traced to his driveway after years of searching. The well now feeds to a nearby vent pipe that allows gas to escape into the atmosphere instead of into the home.
He expects the plugging to be “quite an event” — “this driveway’s not all that big, and they have big equipment.” But “after all this time,” he said, “ I’ll be glad just to get it done with.”
Laura writes about energy and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike.