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AAAS EPI Center Hosts Briefing on Safely Managing Orphaned Oil and Gas Wells

During a recent briefing hosted by the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues, Congressional staff questioned leading experts on how to address the growing problem of orphaned oil and gas wells.

As the United States transitions to clean energy, the AAAS EPI Center is calling attention to the environmental, human health, and economic impacts associated with the growing number of orphaned or improperly abandoned oil and natural gas wells in the United States. The April 7, 2021 briefing highlighted the benefits of prompt action to address orphaned oil and gas wells across the United States.

Definitions vary across jurisdictions, but an “orphaned” well is generally considered to be any oil or gas well without a legally responsible party to conduct proper plugging and site restoration. States and landowners can become liable for closing orphaned wells and cleaning up sites to prevent hazardous pollution. The cost to states and taxpayers to properly cap just these existing wells could be in the billions of dollars.

Hundreds of thousands of orphaned wells dot the American landscape on public and private lands and some pose safety hazards. States are already working to locate and plug orphaned wells but regulators, state and federal land managers, and tribal or indigenous authorities are not financially equipped to locate, monitor, plug, and restore these wells without federal support.

The briefing was organized at the request of Congressional staff, more than 30 individuals attended, representing House and Senate offices as well as federal agencies.

The panelists included Lori Wrotenbery, Executive Director of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), who spoke about IOGCC’s work to gather information on orphaned wells and assist state regulatory agencies with the management of their respective portfolios of orphaned wells.

She was joined by Dr. Seth Shonkoff, Executive Director of the energy science and policy research institute, PSE Healthy Energy; Seth Pelepko, Environmental Program Manager in the Division of Well Plugging and Subsurface Activities in the Bureau of Oil and Gas Planning and Program Management at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; and Daniel Raimi, Senior Research Associate at Resources for the Future.

Since its launch in September 2018, the EPI Center has worked to deliver clear, concise and actionable scientific evidence to officials and other policymakers.

In October 2020, the EPI Center convened a half-day workshop with scientific researchers, state regulators, industry, and community advocates to share solutions and best practices.

The AAAS EPI Center has already helped initiate several collaborations between researchers and state regulators on issues such as how to improve emissions measurement capabilities, characterize emissions composition, and mitigate climate change impacts. Participants of the initial workshop are now working with non-profits and potential investors on funding mechanisms and mitigation of climate impacts from orphaned wells.


Last Updated April 11, 2021


Kathryn McGrath

Communications Director, AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues

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