With Governor Shapiro’s first budget address in the books, Pennsylvanians got a chance to hear our new governor’s plans for some of the most critical issues facing our commonwealth, including pollution from the oil and gas industry. For years, oil and gas companies have been given a free pass to litter Pennsylvania with pollution, hazardous waste, and orphan wells, treating schoolyards, backyards and parks like a public dumping ground.
Governor Shapiro deserves praise for calling out the widespread impact of methane pollution from oil and gas, noting that its potential to warm our planet is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide over the short term. The governor rightly noted that this pollution comes along with hazards not only to our climate but also our health and economy.
In his address, Governor Shapiro focused specifically on the importance of addressing methane leaking from orphan wells – oil and gas wells that have been abandoned and where no responsible party has been identified to plug them. The commonwealth is fortunate to have the opportunity to use federal funds to start putting a dent in this enormous problem. As the governor noted, well-plugging work that comes from this influx of funding can create good-paying, union jobs. This is a win for Pennsylvania.
The Shapiro administration estimates there are at least 350,000 orphan wells that need to be plugged – a lot of work. Unfortunately, federal funding is a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the problem, and taxpayer dollars do nothing to prevent the problem from ballooning further.
Real accountability starts with increasing bonding levels – money set aside by an operator up front – to reflect the true cost of well plugging. Current bonding requirements, which are meant to cover plugging costs if an operator goes bankrupt, are wildly inadequate, making it easy for industry to walk away and leave taxpayers to foot the bill.
Bonding reform would align with the value Governor Shapiro has already demonstrated for holding corporations accountable for harm to Pennsylvanians. When our governor was Pennsylvania’s attorney general, he established himself as a leader that wasn’t afraid to stand up and protect Pennsylvanians from the harms of big, polluting industries – including fracking.
As governor, he has rightly made it a priority to hold Norfolk-Southern accountable for their harm to communities in Beaver County. “They need to pay for this,” Governor Shapiro said in his budget address, “and they are.” The oil and gas industry, too, must be asked to pay its fair share to clean up orphan and abandoned wells. Taxpayers must not be relied upon to solve problems created by industry.
In December, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a report on a large and deep-rooted contingent of the state’s oil and gas industry, highlighting widespread failure to comply with basic regulations that are designed to protect communities. In light of this, it is fantastic to see that Governor Shapiro is proposing a $5.75 million increase in DEP’s budget to expand oversight capacity.
This additional funding can be used to put a check on the oil and gas industry. When companies consistently fail to follow the rules, they should not be rewarded with new permits. Instead, Governor Shapiro’s DEP should zero in on existing wells at several intervention points where they are likely to become orphans, including when companies apply for inactive status and when assets are transferred from one operator to another. Increased scrutiny of these transactions can save taxpayer dollars and prevent new orphan wells from being added to the already-lengthy roster.
Governor Shapiro made it clear that we do not need to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy. He is absolutely right. With that in mind, it is imperative that we distinguish between true clean energy projects and fossil fuel-powered plans that release more methane into the atmosphere. Blue hydrogen hubs are the latter, and they will only increase methane emissions at a time when scientists tell us our survival depends on moving in the other direction. Pennsylvania can and must invest in a true clean energy economy that puts an end to our reliance on fossil fuels and the climate-warming emissions that come with them.
Building on the values expressed in his first budget address and his commitment to curbing hazardous oil and gas pollution, Governor Shapiro has the opportunity to set a nation-leading example of holding industry accountable and creating a clean energy economy that puts Pennsylvania families first. We look forward to building this future together.