Federal funds aid efforts to plug orphan wells


Known orphan wells in Michigan. Image: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

By Jake Christie

Orphan oil wells plague the Midwest, but funds from the federal government will help plug them.

There are tens of thousands of abandoned wells throughout the Great Lakes region.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has identified close to 19,000 wells in that state.

Pennsylvania has over 7,000 orphan wells, according to its Department of Environmental Protection.

Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have each received a $25 million grant from the federal government through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plug orphan wells.

They can have a variety of negative effects on the environment around them, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Orphan wells can contaminate groundwater through the leakage of chemicals like hydrogen sulfide and arsenic, both of which are harmful to humans, according to the lab, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

These grants are the first round of funds through the program.

Pennsylvania will receive an estimated $300 million-plus and Ohio will get about $250 million over the next five years, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Before the influx of federal funds, money for plugging orphan wells came from state budgets.

Michigan has around 450 orphan wells throughout the Lower Peninsula, with large concentrations of wells in Manistee and Benzie counties, as well as along the border of Charlevoix and Otsego counties, according to the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Capping a well in Michigan costs around $76,000 on average.

However,emergency cases can run closer to $350,000, said Adam Wygant, the director of the department’s Oil, Gas and Minerals Division.

The division works with property owners to get their consent to work on their property and to manage expectations about the restoration of the land around an orphan oil, Wygant said.

“The agency then works hand in hand with the contractor, overseeing the work that is performed and making decisions as the project goes on,” Wygant said.

If the process goes smoothly, it takes about two weeks to plug a well. For more complicated wells, it can take up to two months

Generally, abandoned wells are discovered by landowners exploring their property or noticing side effects of a leaking well. The state can also inherit wells if a company owning them becomes insolvent, Wygant said.

Occasionally, the Oil, Gas and Minerals Division investigates an area to locate orphaned or improperly sealed wells.

The division sets priorities for closure based on wells’ potential environmental impact and recently added an environmental justice category to its priority scoring system, Wygant said.

The division hopes to allocate 90% of the funds it received from the federal government before the end of the year, Wygant said.

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