A Just Transition In Appalachia May Start With Plugging Old Oil Wells

A drill rig sits across the street from a farmhouse in Carrollton, Ohio.

A drill rig sits across the street from a farmhouse in Carrollton, Ohio.
Photo: Tony Dejak (AP)

A new report from the regional think tank Ohio River Valley Institute finds that just four states in Central Appalachia are home to one-fifth of the country’s abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells. And putting people to work cleaning up these wells in the region, the report finds, could generate thousands of jobs.

While you might associate coal with states like West Virginia and oil and gas drilling with Western powerhouses like Texas, California, or Wyoming, Central Appalachia has a special relationship with oil and gas. “It’s important to understand that the region is the birthplace of the American oil industry,” Ted Boettner, the author of the report and a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told Earther in a call, noting that the US’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. “Because of that, it has a disproportionate number of oil and gas wells that need to be cleaned up.”

It’s surprisingly difficult to get a handle on just how many abandoned wells there are across the United States; the US EPA estimates that there are 2.1 million unplugged onshore abandoned wells. For the report, Boettner reviewed much of the existing literature to arrive at a number of 538,000 unplugged abandoned oil and gas wells in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. That means that 20% of the nation’s abandoned oil and gas wells could be located in these four states alone. For some context, a Grist report recently estimated that Texas—the country’s oil and gas powerhouse, which, at more than 268,000 square miles, is bigger than these four states put together—has around 113,000 abandoned and idle wells. The report mentions that there could be “hundreds of thousands of additional unplugged abandoned wells in the region,” due to how little data we have available. “When it comes to these numbers, we’re really scratching the surface,” Boettner said. “The truth is, we just don’t know.”

Because of the area’s historic relationship with the industry, many of these abandoned wells in Central Appalachia were drilled before any sorts of environmental regulations for oil and gas producers were put in place—and before any requirements on their cleanup or plugging were set up. “This area is ground zero for the orphan well crisis,” Boettner said, who described how essentially throwing a tree trunk into an abandoned well was once considered an effective method for closing it up.

Unplugged wells pose all sorts of problems. There’s methane leakage for starters; the report estimates that the abandoned wells in Central Appalachia alone produce 71,000 metric tons of methane per year. A host of different chemicals from abandoned wells can leach into the water supply and soil. And even if a well is not actively posing a problem to the environment, an old well is still standing in the way of potential development, agriculture, or other use of the land. (A study published last month found that cleaning up abandoned wells could deliver billions of dollars in benefits in agriculture and carbon sequestration from restoring the land to its original use.) Abandoned wells getting in the way of other types of developments is especially an issue in the Appalachian region, Boettner said, where oil and gas infrastructure was often built much closer to towns and homes, compared to in Texas or the West, where large expanses of land help people live away from infrastructure.

In Central Appalachia, the report finds that plugging all the region’s wells could create more than 15,000 jobs per year over the next two decades—a number, the report notes, that is “nearly equivalent to the decline in upstream oil and gas jobs in the region from 2014 to 2019.” But these jobs won’t come cheap. Depending on the state and the location, the report finds, the cost of plugging wells in Central Appalachia ranges from $6,500 to at least $87,500. Many of the historic wells were drilled before any sort of reclamation policy or cleanup funds were required from oil companies; some are family-owned, others owned by companies that no longer exist.

The potential costs for plugging wells are far beyond the feasibility of most of these states’ budgets and would merit federal intervention, the report argues. A federal jobs program to plug wells in the region, the report suggests, could be paid for with some of the estimated $11 billion in annual federal subsidies given to the oil and gas industry; it also suggests placing a “fee per unit” on oil and natural gas production, similar to what the Abandoned Mine Land program, which puts a fee on coal production to generate funds for cleanup of mines founded before 1977, does in the region.

The idea of the federal government providing money to plug abandoned wells and creating jobs in the process has picked up steam in recent years, especially as a new climate-friendly administration tries to figure out ways to spur economic growth and solve the climate crisis. The Biden administration said last month in its sweeping infrastructure and jobs plan that it would “put the energy industry to work plugging orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines.” The president’s plan would include “an immediate up-front investment of $16 billion” to create “union jobs” to clean up wells and mines across the country. That earmark, of course, may not survive the long conversations with Republicans that would be needed to actually pass the president’s jobs and infrastructure plan. (Conversations held last week on a U.S. House Natural Resources panel around a bill that would provide $8 billion for plugging old wells fell apart along party lines, with Republicans insisting that the money for states come with fewer regulations for oil and gas producers attached.)

Regardless of how the federal government dukes out a deal on plugging wells, bringing jobs to struggling former fossil fuel-producing states should be at the top of everyone’s agenda. Appalachia has suffered at the hands of fossil fuel producers for decades and has long been a political punching bag in conversations around energy and jobs. Figuring out a just transition for its environment and its people is way overdue.

“We can’t build a sustainable prosperous economy in many parts of Appalachia before we clean the area up first,” Boettner said. “It’s been a sacrifice zone for 200 years. Before you do that, it’s not going to have the quality of life necessary to have strong economic progress.”

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