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Infrastructure money makes it a good time to be in the well plugging business

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Across the U.S., some 2 million oil and gas wells have been abandoned, but they're still bad for the climate because they're leaking methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. Now billions of dollars from the recently passed infrastructure law will be used to cap some of them. Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front reports.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: Don Cornell is in a state forest standing in about a foot and a half of snow. He's an oil and gas inspector for Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, and he's looking at a classic old pump jack.

DON CORNELL: You can see there the jack is rusted apart, and it looks like it's put a lot of strain on that 2-inch pipe.

FRAZIER: This oil well was abandoned decades ago when the company that owns it went bankrupt. That means it's now Don Cornell's problem.

CORNELL: Over the next couple of years, that's going to break apart, things are going to fall down the hole and this is going to go up in price a lot to take care of this problem.

FRAZIER: These wells, basically open holes in the ground, pose a number of problems. They can leak gas into people's homes and cause explosions. They can pollute surrounding groundwater. And they can leak stray oil, brine or methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law includes $4.7 billion for plugging them - basically sealing them with cement. Perhaps nowhere is this money more needed than in this part of Pennsylvania, says Cecile Stelter, a local state forester.

CECILE STELTER: I oftentimes say you can't swing a stick without hitting something metal out here.

FRAZIER: Stelter says the state can't even lease the lumber here to loggers because of the number of abandoned oil wells.

STELTER: There can be metal in the trees themselves that the tree has grown over, and then that becomes a safety issue for anyone in the manufacturing of that tree as it gets finished.

FRAZIER: At one time, this northwest corner of Pennsylvania was the largest oil field in the world. The country's first commercial oil well was drilled here in 1859. Pennsylvania has more than 20,000 abandoned wells the state knows about and probably hundreds of thousands that it doesn't. It's a good time to be in the business of plugging wells.

STEVEN PLANTS: So this is our newest workover rig here.

FRAZIER: Steven Plants owns an oil and gas company in Bradford, Pa. At his company's yard, he shows off a million-dollar piece of equipment he's bought to try to compete for state contracts the infrastructure money will pay for.

PLANTS: Service King 675, and it is a 112-foot-high derrick, and it will pull 300,000 pounds.

FRAZIER: Until now, well plugging has been a sleepy part of the industry because the state had little funding to do this work. And Plants says many companies that were required to plug their own wells haven't set aside much money for it.

PLANTS: If you were a company and you owned wells, you don't want to plug wells because there's no money in it. It's a cost. It's an expense. And you're - there's never going to be any return on that investment.

FRAZIER: But the infrastructure money may not solve that basic problem. Melissa Ostroff of Earthworks worries current rules still make it too easy for companies to walk away should the industry face a downturn.

MELISSA OSTROFF: Companies are allowed to go out there and drill new wells, even though you might easily be able to take a look at their - at the books and recognize that there's no way they're going to have the funding to close off all of these wells. And we're just continuing to allow that to happen right now.

FRAZIER: Still, she's glad the infrastructure money will help plug these climate-warming gas leaks, even if it only covers a fraction of the abandoned wells in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Bradford, Pa.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "ANYTHING YOU SYNTHESIZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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