Abandoned gas wells are target of W.Va. ‘Orphan Well Prevention Act’

CHARLESTON — A lawyer for people who have gas drilling operations on their property is pushing for an “Orphan Well Prevention Act.”

David McMahon is presenting the push as a property rights issue for surface owners dealing with abandoned wells on their land.

“It’s not reasonable to leave one of these wells on your property when it’s no longer producing,” McMahon said Friday at the state Capitol.

Among those with interest is Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, the vice chairman of the House Energy Committee.

John Kelly

“Plugging, we know, is a problem,” Kelly said in a Friday interview. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to look at.”

McMahon’s concern is the 12,000 wells in West Virginia that have stopped producing at all. Drillers are required to plug them but that often goes undone.

Many drillers have gone out of business, leaving more than 4,000 wells orphaned.

The state does collect bond money for such instances, but that money only goes so far. McMahon has estimated the state has money to plug about 10 of those wells each year.

The wells may leak gas into the air, leak oil and brine onto the ground or leak gas or contaminated water into surrounding good groundwater.

“All this can happen if the well isn’t properly plugged,” said McMahon, who represents the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

He proposes a bill that would change the way bonding is done.

Rather than allowing each driller to post only a single blanket performance bond for all of the wells it owns, McMahon is advocating alternatives.

He suggests requiring bonds that would apply to single wells or depositing money for future plugging into an escrow account with the State Treasurer while the well is still producing.

The amounts should be determined by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Treasurer, McMahon said.

Delegate Kelly is a sponsor of a bill reflecting what McMahon has described. Kelly said he wanted to get the bill on paper to start debating the details.

“We need to get down in the weeds,” Kelly said. “We need to give them a fair hearing.”

The delegate said there are also efforts to identify additional money to plug abandoned wells. “It’s very expensive to plug a well,” Kelly said.

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