There are approximately 14,000 “orphaned” oil and gas wells across the state of Kentucky, according to state officials.
Abandoned by the original operators, these wells litter forests and fields, limiting where farmers can grow crops and presenting environmental and human health hazards. Many have been left uncapped to bubble gas and leak oil for decades.
Now, after five years of stakeholder meetings between environmental groups and the oil and gas industry, Kentucky lawmakers have introduced House Bill 199 to plug orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned storage tanks that threaten health, safety and the environment.
The state’s foremost environmentalist Tom FitzGerald said stakeholders accomplished more in the last five years of working together than in the last 20 years before that.
“One thing I am most proud of is we have created a framework now for going back and closing those 14,000 legacy wells,” said FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council.
The 40-page bill would expand a program for closing abandoned storage tanks to include orphaned wells around the state, said Bruce Scott, Energy and Environment Cabinet deputy secretary, in a House Natural Resources Committee meeting.
The measure also closes loopholes that allowed operators to work around state oversight and ensures they are footing the bill for cleanup.
For example, in some cases family members have let children under the age of 18 become the “operators” of wells as a workaround to avoid oversight, Scott said.
Last year, the Ohio Valley Resource completed a project looking at how different states in the region are dealing with orphaned wells.
FitzGerald said Kentucky’s measure goes a long way to modernizing the state’s approach to closing these wells, but hurdles remain: namely, funding. If approved, it will still be up to lawmakers to fund the program.
“This creates a framework. We don’t have funding in it and that will remain one of the challenges,” FitzGerald said. “As well as funding the cabinet’s regulatory functions at a time when there is not a whole of new permits being issued, but there are a lot of responsibilities for the existing operations.”