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Ky. to receive $104 million to clean up orphan gas and oil wells

Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.
Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.

Kentucky has among the highest number of orphan oil and gas wells in the country, but will soon receive federal funds to help clean them up.

The state is set to receive nearly $104 million from the U.S. Department of the Interior to aid in capping the abandoned wells, which blight communities and pose risks to human health and the environment. 

Both Gov. Andy Beshear and Sen. Mitch McConnell say the funds will help to solve long overlooked problems in the state.  

“The abandoned oil and gas wells littered across Kentucky are a liability to our Commonwealth, providing no jobs or output. This is a problem in nearly every county, but until now, our local governments have not had the funding required to complete cleanup projects on a large scale,” McConnell said. 

A study from the Environmental Defense Fund produced late last year found Kentucky has more than 14,000 orphan wells — so many that it accounts for nearly a fifth of the nation’s total. 

So-called “orphan” wells are those that are no longer in operation and have no solvent owner of record. Kentucky’s wells are spread across the western, southern and eastern parts of the state.

The wells pose serious environmental hazards locally and nationally. Unplugged wells release toxic chemicals that can spoil water and cause air pollution, including chemicals such as benzene that increase cancer risks. 

With closure costs estimated to be between $25,000 to $75,000 per well, Kentucky will receive enough money to clean up at least around a quarter of the state’s known abandoned wells.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Rebecca Goodman said the funds will help make significant progress.

“You know those are small jobs that many contractors don’t necessarily want to bid on but we are thinking of some different strategies to get some of that money out to local communities,” Goodman said at a recent meeting with the Kentucky Conservation Committee. 

The cabinet is considering creating batches of multiple wells to bid out to local contractors for cleanup, she said. 

Kentucky’s Division of Oil and Gas says it will begin using the money to clean up high priority wells. It will also identify others not already in the state’s database.

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

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