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OPINION

Editorial: Can we all agree to plug abandoned wells?

EDITORIAL USA TODAY NETWORK - PENNSYLVANIA

Want to accomplish something in a polarized climate?

Start with an issue where, against all odds, the Hatfields and McCoys want the same thing. Do that thing. Then find another area of agreement. Do that one. After that's done, keep going. 

There will be furious partisan battles over President Biden's infrastructure proposal — the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan that Biden rolled out in Pittsburgh last month.

If those in Washington D.C. who'd differ over the color of the sky are looking for topics to build consensus around — and we fervently hope they are — we'd suggest they look at Biden's plan to spend $16 billion to plug "orphaned" oil and gas wells and clean up abandoned mines.

Pennsylvania has lots of both. Plugging them has the support of two such diametrically opposed groups — environmentalists and oil and gas companies.

Cementing shut these wells mitigates the impact of leaked brine and oil into the groundwater and, importantly, methane gas into the air. Methane is said to be a more-important contributor to global warming than even carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas companies have the tools and the know-how needed to do the work and they see plugging abandoned wells as a potentially lucrative enterprise. The Biden administration estimates that spending $16 billion to address the wells and the mines would "put hundreds of thousands to work in union jobs."  

Researcher Mary Kang, one of the foremost experts on air emissions from orphan wells in Pennsylvania, has estimated that the Keystone State is home to between 470,000 and 760,000 abandoned wells that date back to the 1800s, long before creation of modern permitting requirements.

In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the world's first oil well in Titusville, giving birth to the modern commercial oil industry. 

The wells are generally concentrated in the western and northwestern parts of the state but it they were spread evenly throughout the commonwealth there'd be between 10 and 16 abandoned wells on each and every square mile of Pennsylvania.

That's a staggering thought. Here's another: It'd cost billions of dollars to cap them all yet last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection budgeted a paltry $720,000 for well plugging, according to a recent report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That report also revealed that the DEP recently spent $350,000 to plug one particularly difficult and highly emissive well in Allegheny County.

That's an outlier, for sure, but, to be fair, there's no way even Pennsylvania's share of the Biden plan's capital would be enough plug all the orphaned wells. The good news is it doesn't have to.

Researchers have discovered that it's a small percentage of the abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania emitting the bulk of the methane, so the commonwealth should be able to get decent bang for the buck, provided it has identified and located the worst emitters.    

Stanford's Rob Jackson, part of a team of scientists mostly from Stanford and Princeton that has been studying Pennsylvania's wells, told the university that "you could seal the vast majority of emissions just by addressing 5 to 10 percent of the wells."

Now for some perspective. Methane emissions from abandoned or orphaned wells barely cracks the top 10 largest sources of anthropogenic methane emission in the United States. Kang says the wells contribute less than 10% of the annual total in Pennsylvania. Agriculture, meanwhile, is responsible for about 25% of methane emissions nationwide. So capping abandoned wells must be part of a larger methane management strategy.

But, for those of us who are starving for evidence of bipartisan cooperation, we'll take whatever low-hanging fruit our politicians can deliver, particularly when it will create jobs and help the environment.

So we urge our elected officials in Washington D.C. to get this done. Then find another area of agreement and get that done. Lather, rinse, repeat.