New York will receive $70 million in federal grants to plug abandoned oil and gas wells

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A well plugging project in Rome, New York in 2014 involving eight abandoned gas wells that were drilled between the 1890s and 1930s. There have been reports of natural gas emissions with several wells, many of them at near residential homes. (Images provided by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation)

WASHINGTON — New York is set to receive nearly $70 million to plug thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells scattered across the state as the Biden administration begins doling out funds from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 1 trillion dollars.

The infrastructure package, signed by President Joe Biden in November, includes a $4.7 billion program to mitigate public health risks posed by abandoned oil and gas wells, known as “orphan wells,” left over from companies that went out of business as far back as the late 1800s.

“These oil and gas wells are the abandoned remnants of the extractive industries that have left it to the states, tribes, federal government and community groups to clean up their mess,” said the senior adviser to the Department of the Interior , Winnie Stachelberg.

The White House said the program will create thousands of jobs, revitalize rural economies and tackle the impact of pollution on historically marginalized communities. Tribal nations are eligible for funding through the Tribal Orphan Wells Grant Program, a $150 million component of the larger program.

“Millions of us, millions, live within a mile of hundreds of thousands of orphan wells that leak and spit,” said White House Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu. “These wells endanger public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, seeping toxic chemicals, emitting harmful pollutants including methane.”

New York — home to 6,809 orphan wells, including 1,912 with insufficient documentation — is one of 26 states that applied for the federal grant money in December. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has estimated the estimated cost of plugging the 4,897 documented orphan wells at $248 million, more than triple what the state will receive in federal funding.

The department’s New York Works Well Plugging initiative has plugged 365 orphan wells since 2013, using a scoring grid to prioritize those with the greatest environmental impact and health risks to nearby communities.

Before plugging the well was surrounded by a brine burn. The well was plugged in 2015 and vegetation grew back after the site was plugged. (Google Earth)

Although the federal funding won’t be enough to plug all of New York’s wells, DEC Director of Mineral Resources Catherine Dickert said it will accelerate the existing initiative. She predicts that the flow of guaranteed funding will incentivize contractors to increase their workforce so they can undertake more patching projects.

“I think one of the best things about federal funding is that it gives us confidence that we’re going to have a new funding opportunity for several years,” Dickert said. “Our hope is that then companies will have the confidence to hire more people and buy more equipment and have multiple teams running to get the job done.”

DEC contracts with companies on both sides of the New York-Pennsylvania border, Dickert said. While Pennsylvania is set to receive nearly $331 million in federal funding — a larger sum than New York — investments in the neighboring state’s workforce could also advance New York’s hookup efforts.

The Home Office has documented more than 130,000 orphan wells nationwide, but a 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated the number of wells could be as high as 2-3 million.

A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, and McGill University found that about 9 million Americans live within a mile of an abandoned well. In New York, hundreds of wells have been discovered next to homes, schools and even under a swing set at a playground, according to the DEC.

“It’s not about whether someone is going to get sick,” Stachelberg said. “It’s a question of when.”

Most of the orphan wells date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, she said, meaning the companies that drilled the wells are no longer in business to deal with the cleanup.

Some communities have used telephone poles or tree trunks to plug their leaky wells, but Adam Peltz, senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said a much more technical approach was needed to prevent contamination groundwater.

“The well is more or less an open borehole that allows the exchange of fluids and gases between the geological layers and the surface,” Peltz said. “When you plug it, you’re pumping in cement and basically locking all of those layers in place to bring the geology back more or less as it was and prevent fluid migration.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation conducts months of inspections and environmental impact testing before plugging a well, said Ted Loukides, chief of the oil and gas compliance and enforcement section. gas from DEC.

Capping becomes more difficult when the land above the wells has been developed for housing or businesses, he said. To find the buried wells, the agency deploys a fleet of drones equipped with magnetometers capable of detecting disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, he explained.

The DEC, which trains its staff members to pilot drones, is partnering with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to launch a drone detection program as early as April.

“To hook them up, they have to find them,” Peltz said. “The drone technology presents this really innovative way of locating some of these undocumented orphan wells, of which there are many in the southern part [of New York].”

Hannah Schoenbaum and Isabel Miller are reporters for Medill News Service.

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