Pennsylvania Budget

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HARRISBURG The Democratic-sponsored bill intended to restore state authority to adjust bonding amounts for conventional oil and gas wells was stripped down by a House committee Tuesday to give it a better shot at passing through the state Legislature.

House Bill 962 as amended, and if adopted into law, would allow the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Environmental Quality Board to reconsider bonding amounts every two years.

It would keep bonds for conventional wells at $2,500 and mandate DEP study its success in enforcing bonding requirements, the cost to plug orphaned and abandoned wells and the effectiveness of existing enforcement authority among other topics.

The amendment from Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, chair of the House Environmental & Energy Resources Committee, removed language that would have put bonding of conventional wells on equal, more expensive footing with that of unconventional wells — the former being shallow, vertical wells compared to deeper, horizontal wells that incorporate fracking.

Bonding wouldn’t apply to wells drilled prior to 1985, when bonding was first introduced. Environmental advocates have criticized the lack of bonding for older wells, saying the vast majority of abandoned wells — DEP estimates the commonwealth has more than 200,000 abandoned or orphaned wells — would remain excluded from bonding.

“The amendment itself actually makes this bill much more amenable to the conventional drilling industry. The reason we’ve done that was for practical considerations to increase the probabilities of being passed,” Vitali said during the meeting.

The bill advanced out of the committee on a split vote with Republicans including minority chair Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean/Cameron/Potter, in opposition.

“The bill is completely unnecessary. I will say this amendment makes a bad bill a little bit better,” Causer said. “However, I still don’t think the amendment is enough to make the bad bill worth voting for.”

Last summer, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate carried a bill into law, Act 96, that stripped the authority for DEP and the Environmental Quality Board to review bonding amounts. It had some bipartisan support. The $2,500 amount was set for 10 years for conventional wells. The bill went into law without the signature of Gov. Tom Wolf, a veto avoided as part of budget negotiations.

Environmental groups were successful in 2021 in petitioning the Environmental Quality Board to review bonding requirements at the time and ultimately require well owners to cover costs in full for plugging. Act 96, however, removed that authority from the Board.

“There are perhaps 100,000 wells in Pennsylvania that are in danger of becoming orphan wells in the absence of policy change that brings more industry money into the system to plug wells at the end of their useful lives — the PA legislature and its regulatory partners need to use all tools at their disposal to make sure these wells are properly closed, which creates jobs, boosts the economy, and protects public health and the environment,” Adam Peltz, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said.

John Walliser, senior vice president of Legal and Government Affairs, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said the organization supports reestablishing authority to the Environmental Quality Board to raise bonding amounts for conventional wells.

“If that authority is successfully restored, the EQB should promptly work with the Department to begin a review. Pennsylvania will not be able to solve the problem of orphaned wells through federal investment alone,” Walliser said.

In January 2021, DEP estimated it could cost $6.6 billion to plug the wells, though the total count of orphaned wells could far surpass the state estimate and substantially raise the price of remediation.

Pennsylvania is expected to receive more than $400 million over the next decade in federal funding to plug wells via the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with $104 million tabbed for the initial funding phase.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Vitali said the bill has the support of DEP and the Shapiro Administration. Should it pass the House, the bill could find support in the Senate as part of this year’s budget negotiations, Vitali said.

Abandoned wells include those left unused for 12 months, according to state law. Wells abandoned prior to April 1985 and are of no use to subsequent property owners are considered orphaned.

The condition-dependent cost to plug wells, a DEP spokesperson previously said, ranged from $10,000 to as high as $800,000 since it began a well-plugging program in 1989. Without a bond in place, the public bears the full cost.

Leaking wells contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Methane leaks pollute water supplies or can build up in homes or other enclosed structures, which heavy concentrations can cause loss of consciousness or a fire hazard. Left unsealed, DEP says some wells allow acid mine water from underground mine workings to the surface.

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CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

Eric Scicchitano is the CNHI Pennsylvania state reporter. He is a former CNHI Reporter of the Year and previously worked at The (Sunbury) Daily Item before until he took over the Harrisburg beat in January 2022. Email him at

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