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Ky. has 14,000 ‘orphan wells’ and money to clean them up 

A new study of abandoned oil and gas wells has found Kentucky has among the highest number of orphan wells in the country. Federal funds will now help clean them up. 

Orphan wells are wells no longer in operation who have no solvent owner of record, leaving tribes, state and federal governments liable for the clean-up. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15 has set aside nearly $5 billion to plug and clean up documented orphan wells.

The Environmental Defense Fund, working with oil and gas regulators, found more than 81,000 of them across the country, according to a new report

“We wanted to put this map together to make the problem palpable for people so they could understand this is a big problem, it’s in a lot of places, it may even be near where I live,” said EDF Senior Attorney Adam Peltz.

Kentucky has documented 14,367 wells, or nearly 18% of all the known documented orphan wells across the country, according to the EDF report.

The wells are most densely concentrated in the western, southern and eastern parts of the state. The highest number of wells was documented in Lee County, followed by Cumberland and Ohio counties, according to the report. Peltz said the Ohio Valley region has a surprisingly high number, in part because Kentucky had some of the country’s earliest oil and gas development.

“One does not necessarily think of the crescent from Appalachia into the Midwest as a major hydrocarbon production area, but it is and has been since the 1850s,” Peltz said.  

The combined effects of these orphaned wells have both local and national impacts. Together the known orphan wells emit the equivalent of 7 to 20 millions of tons of C02 equivalent greenhouse gases every year. 

Left unplugged, the wells can also leak toxic chemicals like benzene that can spoil water and cause air pollution — threatening the health, well-being and property values of those who live nearby. 

Funds to clean-up documented orphaned wells were provided through the REGROW Act as part of the infrastructure bill. State governments will be able to apply for grants to clean-up wells in their region. 

Closure costs can average between $25,000 and $75,000 per well, but Peltz said there are enough funds available for Kentucky to clean up every documented well in the state.  In addition to the environmental benefits, cleaning and plugging the wells is expected to create tens of thousands of jobs across the country, according to a report from Resources for the Future.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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