Abandoned oil and gas wells are poisoning Pennsylvanians. Rep. Lee wants to change that. - TAI News
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The U.S. House of Representatives on April 30 passed legislation to tackle the public health risks and environmental problems posed by what could be millions of abandoned oil and gas wells across the country, including hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania.

The Abandoned Wells Remediation, Research and Development Act, sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, would require the U.S. Energy Department to create a program to improve data on the location of abandoned wells, the process for plugging and repurposing the wells, and strategies to mitigate the environmental impact of the wells, which can leak chemicals and contaminate the air, soil and groundwater.

The bill passed 333-75, with 202 Democrats and 131 Republicans voting for the legislation and only Republicans voting against it. The legislation now goes to the Senate.

“These abandoned wells not only contribute to the climate crisis by leaking methane, but they also expose our families to cancer-causing toxins like benzene, leave our homes vulnerable to explosive gasses, and lower property values — making it tougher for families to maintain and sell their homes,” Lee said during a floor speech prior to the vote.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is more than 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

“Our region’s health and economy suffer while we allow these wells to pollute our communities without accountability or plans to plug them,” Lee said.

Pennsylvania is home to the country’s first commercial oil well, which was drilled in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859. Since then, oil and gas companies have drilled wells across the state and country. Years later, a trail of abandoned wells threatens public health and the environment and disproportionately burdens communities of color, low-income areas, and tribal and Indigenous communities, due in part to racist development practices.

The state Department of Environmental Protection reports that there are about 27,000 documented abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania — but there could be at least another 350,000 that have yet to be identified. Data on abandoned wells is lacking, which is one of the reasons Lee sponsored this bill, and federal officials estimate there could be millions of abandoned wells across the country.

The U.S. Department of the Interior reported that at least 4.6 million Americans live within a half-mile of an abandoned oil or gas well, and some 14 million people are within a mile of one.

The Biden administration has worked to secure billions of dollars in funding to handle these wells. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, championed and signed by Biden, directed the Secretary of the Interior to establish programs to close the wells and provided $4.7 billion to plug wells on federal, tribal, state, and private land. Lee noted that federal money helped Pennsylvania plug 139 abandoned wells last year.

Plugging a well can cost as much as $100,000, an amount impossible for many homeowners to afford on their own.

Some of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law money is expected to go to Pamela and Ivan Schrank, western Pennsylvania homeowners who found an orphaned well on their property. Lee met with the couple in March.

“I discovered the abandoned well when, one day, I got so dizzy I almost fainted,” Pamela Schrank said in a press release

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.