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Scores of abandoned gas wells add to Pa. backlog

Plus, the third rail of Pittsburgh politics.


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Wednesday, January 25, 2023
Abandoned wells, fight club, missed money, collection questions, tour stops, conservative crackdown, good cheer, and Philadelphia food science.

A new report by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection says conventional oil and gas drillers improperly abandoned thousands of additional wells here between 2017 and 2021 — often with impunity.

Abandoned wells leak the greenhouse gas methane, which contributes to climate change, and drillers are required to report and plug them. 

Otherwise it falls to the state, "the plugger of last resort," which already has an estimated 200,000 wells to close at an average cost of $30,000 a piece.

"The industry's recent record of compliance is troubling and requires DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management to explore new techniques for deterring violations and encouraging compliance," the report says. 

A representative for the conventional oil and gas industry, an older form of extraction that differs from deep-well fracking, disputes the findings but declined to offer specifics when reached by StateImpact.

Read the full write-up: Pa. drillers abandoned thousands of natural gas wells in 5 years, ignored state law, report says.
THE CONTEXT: The DEP's report was ordered by then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, amid a dispute with lawmakers over a bill impacting how millions of dollars in federal well-plugging aid would be spent.

It's not clear whether the report will change anything, StateImpact notes. Gov. Josh Shapiro's office has yet to comment. 

In 2020, Shapiro, then the state's attorney general, proposed changes to protect Pennsylvanians from the negative impacts of energy production — upfront chemical disclosures and expanded buffer zones among them.

Now that he's governor, the Democrat's energy agenda is still coming into focus; but environmentalists want him to take action, starting with his own recommendations from several years ago, via Capital & Main.

The DEP's abandoned-well report ties a lack of consequences for industry violators to the department's lack of resources.

It's the same dearth that prompted former DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell to issue a warning of sorts to his likely successor.


"We don't want to see citizens and taxpayers have to pay for plugging these wells after this company is gone. The way Diversified's business model is set up, this is a distinct possibility."

—Ted Boettner, a researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, on what might happen if Diversified Energy Company, the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the U.S., goes bankrupt and abandons wells across Appalachia
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» BROKEN BOROUGHS: Join us Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on Pennsylvania's local governments and how their oversight — or lack thereof — impacts residents and governance. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

A stellar view from the River of Rocks Overlook at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Berks County, via Don N. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

An aerial view of peaks and valleys as seen from a rocky overlook area.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.INTERNAL CONFLICT: The power struggle that gripped Butler County's Republican Committee last year included a lawsuit, an intervention by the state party, and a scuffle over a booth at a local farm show. The New York Times (paywall) calls the GOP fracturing there emblematic of the national struggle for control of a Republican Party that's divided by a right-wing grassroots insurgency and turning on itself.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.TAX STATUS: Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has ordered a review of tax-exempt properties belonging to some of the city's most powerful interests to see where that status should be challenged. Per PublicSource, almost 20% of property in Pittsburgh is privately owned and tax-exempt, with the largest share owned by UPMC, a nonprofit worth billions. At stake: more stable city coffers.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.HUMAN REMAINS: Pennsylvania's state museum has the 24th-largest collection of unreturned Native American remains in the country, decades after federal lawmakers moved to curb the practice. A spokesperson told WITF that many have not been returned because they have not been claimed, but Stephanie Sellers, a Gettysburg College professor, noted eligibility and access hurdles. Background here.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.OPEN SESSIONS: With the state House now adjourned until Feb. 27, Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) is embarking on a statewide "listening tour" that starts tonight in Pittsburgh. The session begins at 6 at Carnegie Mellon University's Simmons Auditorium. Sign up to speak here. Another is set for Friday at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Other tour dates, including in NEPA, "will be announced soon."

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.DRAG LIMITS: State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) wants to ban drag shows in public spaces or areas that can be seen by children, the push coming amid a nationwide conservative crackdown. His callout cited a "sexually charged," youth-attended Bucks County drag show "sponsored by state and local officials," prompting this response from an implicated colleague and this edit to his memo.
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WEAPON CHECK: The first bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D., Pa.) is "a bill to regulate assault weapons, to ensure that the right to bear arms is not unlimited." S.25 follows a spate of mass shootings in recent days that has President Joe Biden calling for an assault weapons ban.

OFFICE SPACE: Pennsylvania has a new economic development office that's being billed as a "one-stop shop to help businesses cut through red tape and streamline operations," Capital-Star reports. The Office of Transformation and Opportunity was created by Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday.

DROUGHT WATCH: A drought watch that started last summer has finally been lifted for five Pennsylvania counties where water-use reductions were still recommended five months in, Lehigh Valley Live reports. The counties are: Carbon, Luzerne, Northampton, Potter, and Schuylkill.

CHEER SQUAD: George Washington High's cheer squad became the first from a Philly public school to compete at nationals last week and emerged ranked 10th in the nation in their division. The Inquirer (paywall) wrote about the fundraising dash that made it possible.

CHIP SCIENCE: The Herr's "flavored by Philly" contest is back with a twist for the new year. Philly Mag spoke with one of the potato chip scientists who make the uncanny flavor combinations a reality

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Directional

Congrats to our daily winners: Susan D., Craig W., Barbara F., Wendy A., Becky C., Elaine C., Susan N.-Z., Don H., Jon W., Kim C., Jane R., Dennis M., Kimberly D., Irene R., James B., Dianne K., David W., David S., Bill S., William Z., Trudy W., John P., Vicki U., and Myles M.
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