Pennsylvania DEP Launches Good Samaritan Program to Address Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells

With an estimated 200,000 orphan oil and gas wells—i.e. wells without an owner or responsible party—across the state, Pennsylvania doesn’t have the financial resources to facilitate plugging all of them. As a response to this issue, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) has announced an extension of its existing Good Samaritan program to oil and gas, which encourages private-sector partners to address issues caused by these wells without taking on the liability typically associated with doing so.

Pennsylvania has an extensive history of oil and gas drilling, with oil production traced back to the “Drake” well and natural gas production dating back to 1881. A current estimate by the Independent Petroleum Association of America places the number of historical wells drilled at approximately 325,000. Of those 325,000 wells, over 200,000 are still unaccounted for. To compound the problem, metal was scavenged from well sites during World War II, leaving little trace of the wells existence at the surface. As the wells are found and verified, the PADEP catalogues the wells in the Abandoned and Orphan Well database, but with over 8,200 wells listed identified, there’s far too many to address singlehandedly.

Program reduces hazards while relieving landowners of risk

Until this extension of the program, the Environmental Good Samaritan Act has been used for coal mine reclamation projects. Historically, mining operators were held responsible for further affecting areas previously mined by others. Even in cases where dangerous highwalls were eliminated, the coal operator was held responsible for preexisting acid mine drainage discharges. The Act provided a mechanism to reclaim previously mined areas while providing the operator with environmental liability protection.

Landowners, groups, or individuals who are involved in projects to reclaim abandoned mineral extraction lands and abate water pollution caused by oil and gas wells are protected under the Environmental Good Samaritan Act. Although there are some limitations, landowners who provide access to their property are not responsible for injury or damage to someone engaged in, pollution caused by, or operation and maintenance of one of these projects.

Taking advantage of the program requires careful consideration

This program may prove beneficial to both unconventional oil and gas operators who have been reluctant to plug and abandon wells due to the liability risks and long-term O&M costs, as well as to the DEP. The first two projects conducted under this program in 2017 are estimated to have saved the DEP between $60,000 and $85,000, alone. Furthermore, plugging wells correctly can prevent significant environmental issues resulting from fluid or natural gas leakage down the line. However, if you decide to take on one of these projects on your property, there are a number of important things to keep in mind:

Develop a clear understanding of your site and well. Before taking any action, a thorough site assessment should be conducted that takes into account background records including any available well records and hydrogeological reports. You’ll also need to have a thorough understanding of the well to identify the best method for plugging. The plugging of these wells requires knowledgeable contractors with specialized equipment. Unless you have experience with planning this type of work, it’ll probably be necessary to work with an expert who can ensure the process is completed properly the first time; be sure to choose a partner that has the appropriate knowledge and history.

Ensure you’re compliant with the applicable regulations. The PADEP has a training webinar to help applicants in the process of submitting a Good Samaritan project proposal and applying for liability protection, which can be a useful tool for volunteers to navigate the initial stages of the process. However, you’ll also need to be aware of any other requirements, such as Clean Water Act regulations, that apply to nearby waterbodies that could be impacted by abatement or reclamation activities.

Prioritize safety in all your operations. The steps involved in plugging and abandonment—from wellsite preparation to plugging—all create opportunities for accidents to occur. Being aware of the potential hazards is critical to preventing harm to those working on the site. The site assessment phase of these projects should identify safety issues and rectify them before work begins. Human health is always a top priority, but when it comes to these types of projects, you should also take the necessary steps to ensure that natural resources, wildlife, and ecosystems are also protected from any of the on-site activities.

The Good Samaritan Program provides a great opportunity for landowners to eliminate the risk posed to the environment and their property by an orphan well, but most will need the expertise of a professional to undertake one of these projects successfully. When choosing a partner, make sure they’re well-qualified to address each of the reminders included here so that you can take full advantage of the program’s intention to reduce your risk and simplify the reclamation process.


Doug Spicuzza

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