Pennsylvania Expects $400 Million in Infrastructure Funds to Begin Plugging Thousands of Abandoned Oil Wells

One scientist studying toxic emissions from the wells called the amount “woefully inadequate” in a state where officials say there are probably 250,000 such abandoned drill sites that need remediation.

Nearly a year ago, residents of New Freeport, Pennsylvania, a little town about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh, learned about one of the many dangers of abandoned oil and gas wells the hard way.

Tom Bussoletti, a stonemason who lives just outside of town, said several witnesses told him that liquid began gushing “15 feet into the air” from an abandoned well at the bottom of Fox Hill—one of at least 699 abandoned, unplugged wells in Greene County.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is still investigating the incident, but the agency has said that the abandoned well was “communicating” with a new, deeper gas well owned by EQT Corp. a mile away. That well was being fracked, a process that involves forcing millions of gallons of water through horizontal pipes to release natural gas trapped in ancient shale formations. Fracking fluid contains toxic chemicals and picks up other dangerous substances as it gushes through the shale.

One of the known risks of abandoned wells, many of which were drilled before there were good regulations or records, is that fracking fluid can find an underground path to them and then spew to the surface. The wells, which often just look like pipes sticking from the ground, also can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other chemicals that can be harmful to people, plants, and wildlife.