Constitutional challenge seeks clean up of abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania

Sierra Club and partners filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania state court to promote plugging and remediation of thousands of dangerous abandoned oil and gas wells across the state. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, “Unplugged or improperly plugged wells can cause a myriad of problems, including gas migration into occupied structures, water supply impacts, surface water impacts, hazardous air pollutant emissions, methane emissions, and soil and groundwater contamination.” Methane is a powerful climate pollutant. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality, under Pennsylvania's Environmental Rights Amendment, of a state law freezing bonding amounts for oil and gas wells at the extremely low current rate of $2,500 per well, far below the actual cost of remediation.

Adequate bonding for oil and gas wells is crucial to give operators a financial incentive to promptly cap wells  and  to ensure that the regulator has sufficient funds to complete the well plugging if the operator is unable or unwilling to do the work. An expert retained by Sierra Club calculated that the average cost of well plugging in Pennsylvania is $38,000, more than fifteen times current bond levels..

Sierra Club and its partners had initially petitioned Pennsylvania regulators to increase bond amounts in 2021. In response, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 96, removing the authority of regulators to adjust bond amounts for a period of 10 years. The new lawsuit challenges Act 96, seeking to restore the authority of regulators to respond to Pennsylvania's abandoned well crisis. The lawsuit alleges that by freezing bond amounts at the current extremely low level, Act 96 violates the Environmental Rights Amendment's guarantee of a right to a clean environment and the Commonwealth's trustee obligation to prohibit the degradation, diminution, and depletion of public natural resources.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, Earthworks, PennFuture, and Protect PT. Sierra Club attorneys Peter Morgan and Ankit Jain are lead counsel in the litigation. 

The lawsuit and broader abandoned wells strategy have relied heavily on important contributions from our colleagues in the Field Department, Analyst Team, Pennsylvania Chapter, Comms Department, and Dirty Fuels Campaign.