Range Resources submitted “inaccurate and conflicting information” to the state Department of Environmental Resources over the status of more than 40 wells, drawing a $294,000 civil penalty.
The state said that Range asked to declare the wells “inactive,” which means they are not presently producing but are viable for future use within five years, instead of abandoned, which means they no longer produce natural gas and must be plugged by the operator.
“It’s the law: Inactive wells need to be viable for future use. If wells are not viable for future use, then they should be classified as abandoned wells and are required to be plugged,” said DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell in a press release. “DEP is committed to ensuring the safety and health of all Pennsylvanians and will continue to enforce violations of the commonwealth’s environmental protection laws.”
The Oil and Gas Act of 2012 mandates that wells that have no future use are ineligible for inactive status, and after 12 consecutive months of no production would be classified as abandoned and must be plugged.
Abandoned wells are a big problem in Pennsylvania and other gas producing states, as many conventional oil and gas wells drilled many years ago were never plugged and can present a hazard to the environment and the safety of nearby residents. Leaks from abandoned wells are a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accounts for about 25 percent of global warming. Research has found that the amount of methane leaking from abandoned wells is much worse than reported.
Pennsylvania has an Abandoned and Orphan Well Plugging Program to address wells whose operators cannot be determined or no longer exist, but there are hundreds of thousands of these wells across the state and insufficient funds to plug them all. The DEP has made requiring operators to plug unused wells a priority.
The DEP began investigating after Range applied for inactive status in September 2017 for the Shirocky No. 1 well in Fayette County, indicating that it intended to return it to production. However, a Range interoffice memo included with the application “stated its Shirocky well had no viable future use.”
DEP then issued a subpoena to Range for information on other wells for which Range had applied for inactive status, and determined that between 2013 and 2017, 42 Range conventional wells had been declared inactive but never used again, and some had not been used for more than a year when Range applied for inactive status.
“Range Resources used the inactive status period to delay the eventual plugging of unproductive wells without returning them to active status,” the release states.
DEP filed a notice of violation against Range for the Shirocky well, and the company addressed the other wells by plugging those with no viable future use. A consent assessment was entered into, resulting in the $294,000 penalty, which has been paid. The money will go to the state’s well plugging program to address other orphan wells.
Range sent a statement to the Pittsburgh Business Times saying it accepted responsibility for the error of a former employee and cooperated with DEP to address its concerns and plug the appropriate wells.