Quick Takes

More than 600 ‘orphan’ oil and gas wells plugged in Kentucky with federal funds

By: - October 19, 2023 6:20 pm
On the left: a leaking abandoned oil and gas well in Union County. On the right: a picture of the well site cleaned up in September 2023.

Two photos showing the cleanup of an abandoned well in Union County. (Photos by Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet)

The director of the Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas told state lawmakers Thursday that 627 so-called “orphan” oil and gas wells have been plugged thanks to recent federal funding, though thousands of such abandoned wells remain across the state. 

Dennis Hatfield, the Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas director, said the state officials estimate there are more than 15,000 abandoned oil and gas wells scattered throughout the state. Some of the wells, Hatfield said, date back to the Civil War and all the way through the 1960s when the state first implemented oil and gas regulations. 

Such “orphan” wells can be an environmental safety hazard, with unplugged or poorly plugged wells having the potential to leach toxic chemicals into underground aquifers or leak methane, an explosive hazard, unknowingly into buildings. Methane is also a much more potent greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. 

Hatfield said contractors have plugged wells in 27 counties in Western and Eastern Kentucky, with some wells in Wayne County still being plugged. 

“I couldn’t begin to summarize all the testimonials of farmers and landowners and community people that have seen the favorable responses, that the program has been really well accepted across our Commonwealth,” Hatfield said. 

Kentucky received a $25 million grant in October 2022 through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to plug the wells. A U.S. Department of the Interior release last year stated Kentucky had estimated the funding would be used to plug up to 1,200 wells, but Kentucky oil and gas officials were only able to plug a little more than half of that initial estimate. 

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson John Mura said state oil and gas officials realized they would only be able to plug the over 600 wells after officials had solicited and received bids for the plugging work. 

At a meeting of oil and gas officials last year when they were soliciting bids, Hatfield had said a lack of bidders was driving up the price of plugging each well. Hatfield had told lawmakers Thursday the average price of plugging each well through the grant funding was about $33,000.

A 2021 report from the nonprofit research group Resources for the Future analyzed data from four states on nearly 20,000 orphan wells, finding the average cost to plug a well to be around $20,000. The price per plugged well jumped to an average of $76,000, according to the report, when the ground surrounding the well site was also rehabilitated.  

Mura also said the Energy and Environment Cabinet did an “extraordinary job” with contracting the bids given that the grant funding required state officials to allocate almost all of the funding within 90 days after it was awarded. Other states have faced challenges with trying to find enough plugging crews to do the work while grappling with federally mandated timelines for the well plugging funds. 

Hatfield said state officials have partnered with the Kentucky Geological Survey to monitor methane emissions at 100 abandoned well sites to meet the requirements of the grant funding. State oil and gas officials are also applying for more federal funding to plug wells as a part of an annual application, up to $25 million a year, to continue to plug wells through the end of the decade.

Hatfield also said state oil and gas inspectors are still finding more undocumented abandoned oil and gas wells across the state, receiving reports of new abandoned wells from Kentuckians through an email address where state officials crowdsource tips. 

He said an inspector had recently tried to confirm the location of an abandoned well and had discovered nine more abandoned wells in the process. Hatfield said one of the “unknown and unmapped” wells discovered is at Rockcastle County High School. 

“We still find these orphan wells every week. We go out, we look, citizens report, and we keep looking for more. So there’s much more work to be done,” Hatfield said. “The older oil and gas basins, we’ll continue to find them for a while.”

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.

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