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Our Advocacy at Work: OEC scores a victory on orphan wells

Melanie Houston, July 20, 2018

On June 29, Governor Kasich signed into law a new bill that will better protect Ohioans and their natural environment from abandoned oil and gas wells. HB 225, the “orphan well bill” was championed by Rep. Andy Thompson (Marietta), and supported unanimously in the House and Senate.  

The Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund played an instrumental role in getting this bill passed. We worked with the bill’s sponsor and other stakeholders to get the bill into a form that it could move through the legislative process. We testified in support of the bill in the House and Senate and engaged in significant lawmaker education. The OEC was even able to work strategically with the Ohio Oil and Gas Association in support this bill.

We commend the Governor, the Senate and the House for supporting a bill that streamlines and improves the orphan well plugging program and thereby better protects Ohioans.

Why should Ohioans care about abandoned oil and gas wells? Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not exactly, in October 2014, the nearly 350 students and 25 teachers and administrators at Lorain Admiral King Elementary school noticed a strange smell in the school building. There was a methane build up, and it jeopardized the safety of students. Worse, no one could figure out where it was coming from. Finally, thanks to continued testing by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and the Lorain Fire Department, the problem was identified as an improperly plugged well directly underneath the school gymnasium.

Three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the school had solved the problem, but the whole problem could have been avoided in the first place by proper plugging of the orphaned well. Orphan wells have also been found under other dangerous places such as under houses and streets, in lawns, and in recreation areas in both rural and urban areas.

Orphan wells are improperly abandoned oil or gas wells that are no longer in production and often several decades old. Most were drilled before Ohio adopted its first oil and gas well regulations in the 1960s.

These orphan wells pose a hazard to the environment and to human health and safety. Until they are located and properly plugged, they are pathways to pollution. Risks include fire, overflow of oil or brine into ecologically sensitive areas like streams, and groundwater contamination.

In 1977, ODNR established an Orphan Well Program to plug improperly abandoned oil and gas wells. Funded by a portion of the state tax on oil and gas production, Ohio’s program has already plugged more than two thousand wells across the state. Still, there are thousands of undiscovered orphan wells dotting Ohio’s landscape and a long list of some 700 wells waiting to be plugged.

The orphan well bill makes the following improvements to Ohio law:

  • Streamlining much of the historical title and landowner research that the agency must conduct and by giving the Chief of Oil and Gas more discretion to act.
  • This bill will better protect communities by requiring contractors hired by a landowner to be bonded and insured.
  • The bill will help residents dealing with abandoned wells on their private property by allowing the Chief of Oil and Gas to directly pay the contractor plugging the well instead of reimbursing the landowner after the resident covers the costs out of his or her own pocket.
  • The bill also makes the orphan well plugging program accountable to the General Assembly by requiring ODNR Division of Oil and Gas to report annually to the Ohio General Assembly and the Technical Advisory Council on Oil and Gas
  • The orphan well bill also calls for an increased funding level from 14% to 30% of the total oil and gas program budget.

ODNR estimates that under this new bill, they will be able to plug some 80 wells in FY 2018. The program should speed up after this date because the most severe wells will be tackled first.

The OEC and OEC Action Fund have advocated for a robust orphan well plugging program for over a decade and we are so pleased to see this bill pass to become law. Ohioans – especially those in rural areas and those with orphan wells on their property- stand to benefit greatly from this bill.