This story was republished with permission from EcoOhio, a project of Kent State University’s Reporting Public Policy class.
A huge environmental burden is due to be lifted as Ohio plans to cap almost 20,000 defunct oil wells across the state, including more than an estimated 1,000 in Cuyahoga County.
As a key initiative of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Biden administration in January announced that Ohio is eligible for $256 million to cap non-producing oils wells, which are known to emit dangerous toxins such as methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas and a super pollutant responsible for at least 25 percent of the current global warming trend.
“Every day we let an orphaned well remain uncapped, that means we’re releasing more greenhouse gases,” said Nolan Rutschilling, interim managing director of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council. “[T]hat’s accelerating climate change, and we’re impacting public health.”
The federal government has identified 1,053 Ohio wells in its Orphan Well Program, which includes 77 in Cuyahoga County. Eric Vendel, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas, said the real number is more like 19,662.
The higher state count, he said, stems from the difference between the state and federal definitions of an orphan well. “[W]e have documents substantiating that those wells are orphaned,” Vendel said. “We just haven’t gone out, reviewed it through the whole statutory plugging process, and started putting it into packages yet.”
Whatever the actual figure, it’s a small fraction of the U.S. total. In 2018, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission reported that more than 1 million non-producing oil wells are unplugged across the country.
Here in Ohio, the ODNR plans to run a Public Information Campaign this spring and summer to educate residents about wells in hopes of receiving reports of other orphaned structures.
It then plans to begin capping. State officials said they expect to receive an initial payment of $25 million for capping this fall. Another $22 million is in the state’s general fund, of which 30 percent comes from a tax on the oil and natural gas industries for well cleanup.
“We have plenty of money to spend out of the gate,” Vendel said. He remarked that the federal infrastructure bill represents an unprecedented opportunity to plug orphan wells, and it is only the first of many to come over the next 14 years.
The cost of plugging a well depends on many factors including its depth, proximity to homes other structures, and degree of surface or groundwater contamination. It also varies by state. In Pennsylvania, the average cost per well in 2018 was $79,019. Ohio’s average was $58,824, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission’s state and provincial regulatory strategies report.
The infrastructure law focuses on three areas: public health, climate change and jobs.
Uncapped wells straddle all three.
In California, where at least 2 million residents live within a mile of an active well, Stanford researchers found there was increased air pollution within a larger radius of 2.5 miles. Across the U.S., the Environmental Defense Fund estimates about 9 million Americans live within a mile of a documented orphan well.
“Methane and other emissions that come from these uncapped wells can worsen asthma, affect lung development in kids and even cause immune system damage and increase the risk of cancer,” Rutschilling said.
In Cuyahoga County, the oil boom began in 1883 with the discovery of natural gas in what is now Rocky River. ODNR lists 27 orphan wells, including many in densely populated neighborhoods such as Bradgate Avenue and Metropolitan Drive.
“Looking at the map and looking at the funding that’s coming into Ohio, we just encourage the state to keep scaling up what they’re doing and to do it as fast as possible with this funding,” Rutschilling said.
Ted Boettner is a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute who developed the abandoned oil and gas wells hazardous report. He said emissions not only cause air pollution but affect waterways.
Sulfur and other minerals are released from gas emissions and can coat groundwater, creating sinkholes. Moreover, chemicals spread through the water, killing fish and other aquatic creatures.
In some cases, abandoned wells cause even more damage by blowing up. In 2017, two men in Firestone, Colorado were killed by an oil explosion while installing a hot water heater in the basement of a house adjacent to an oil field.
Northeast Ohio had a close call in 2014 when about 375 students and administrators evacuated Lorain Admiral King Elementary School after noticing a strange odor in the building. The cause turned out to be methane from an improperly plugged well, which was trapped under the gymnasium floor.
Boettner said federal money could solve the problem, but having a national program similar to the Abandoned Mine Land Program is another solution, utilizing taxes from the oil industry. States also need to take responsibility for plugging wells that have been abandoned.
“If you want the industry to pay for it, the best thing to do is take a production tax [and] put it into a fund to ensure that all of these wells get properly decommissioned,” he said.
Ohio has plugged 1,000 wells since the Orphan Wells Program launched in 1977. In 2018, H.B. 225 increased the production severance tax to 30 percent, thereby funneling money into the program and helping raise the annual well cleanups from 31 to 181.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesperson for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and a supporter of the bill, said this isn’t enough. If the statewide project is to be completed with a few decades, “What we need them to be is at about 2,000 wells a year,” he said.
Texas is doing better. Started in 1984 and funded similar to Ohio’s program, Texas has plugged 41,132 wells to date. The pace there has quickened too, rising from over 1,300 in 2018 to 1,710 in 2019 before dipping down to over 1,400 per year during the pandemic.
“Texas is the other state that has a solid plugging program in place,” Vendel said. “In fact, they’ve had the jump on everybody. I think that’s been 30 years where they’ve been doing a great job plugging, but I think we’re right there behind them.”
In Ohio, money alone won’t solve the problem. In addition to funding, the ODNR needs many contractors to do the work of plugging. Indeed, the state is already looking for a Construction Manager at Risk who would then hire subcontractors. The application closes April 7.
Jason Simmerman, an engineer with the ODNR, said the boom today isn’t for oil and natural gas but rather for skilled labor to clean up the mess drilling for them has left.
“This money really generates the opportunity for people to make a career out of oil and gas and plugging wells,” he said.
Kelly Krabill is a journalism major at Kent State University.
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