At the end of their economic life, wells must be plugged in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements. To ensure the sufficiency of funds for well plugging, the DEC holds financial security in amounts statutorily determined based on an operator's number of wells and their depths. At year-end 2014, DEC held $25.32 million in financial security to guarantee well plugging and well site reclamation. This represents an increase of $1.44 million from the amount held at year-end 2013.
In 2014, operators plugged 234 wells in accordance with requirements in DEC-issued plugging permits. Of the 234 wells plugged in 2014:
- 178 (76%) of the plugged wells were oil and secondary recovery wells in the old oilfields of western New York;
- 48 (21%) were gas wells; and
- 8 (3%) were comprised of a mix of other regulated well types.
Plugging occurred in 18 counties with 47% of the plugging jobs in Cattaraugus County and 25% in Allegany County. As noted above, the vast majority of plugging jobs involved old oil wells, particularly in the Richburg and Bradford Fields.
Abandoned Well Plugging
Orphan wells are unplugged wells that have been abandoned by their original owners. Most of these wells were drilled prior to the existence of a regulatory framework in New York. There are over 3,500 orphan and abandoned wells in the Department's records. The DEC's Oil and Gas Account (originally called the Oil and Gas Fund) is dedicated to the plugging of orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells. The account receives $100 from every ECL Article 23 Permit to Drill issued by the DEC. At year-end 2014, this account held $106,566.
The 2013-14 FY budget included $2 million for the plugging of abandoned oil and gas wells in the state. The much-needed allocation is part of the New York Works II program, and is referenced as the New York Works Well Plugging Initiative (NYWWPI) - see below. The Division continued to inspect and evaluate well sites to support the development of additional well plugging projects.
Additionally, DEC staff continued working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard to plug oil wells with federal funds from the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. As a direct result of DEC staff efforts, USEPA has undertaken several plugging projects in New York State.
In 2014, USEPA plugged a total of 24 wells in two counties, as follows:
- Allegany County - 20 wells on three leases (Road 106, South Branch, and Warfield) in the Town of Alma; and
- Cattaraugus County - 4 wells on the Polly Lease in the Town of Carrollton
In conjunction with the well plugging efforts, the well sites were reclaimed.
New York Works Well Plugging Initiative
The State's 2013-2014 FY included $2 million for the plugging of orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells; this funding - termed the New York Works Well Plugging Initiative (NYWWPI) - has provided a significant opportunity to address these abandoned and unplugged oil and gas wells, many of which represent significant threats to public health and the environment. New York is home to some 3,500 orphan and abandoned wells, concentrated primarily in the southwestern part of the state where most of the historical drilling has occurred.
Orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells exist in all oil and gas producing regions in the United States including New York State, and individual state oil and gas regulatory agencies along with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) have developed various strategies to address them. These wells represent a relatively small but significant part of the nation's legacy of historical energy production; since 1981, when the New York State Legislature established the Oil & Gas Account to address orphan and abandoned wells, the state has made efforts to plug such wells, with some limited success. However, beginning with legislative sweeps in the early 1990s and continuing through the recent reduction in permitting activity (the account is funded by a $100 fee for each ECL 23 well permit application), the Oil & Gas Account has been drastically reduced, effectively precluding the Department's ability to plug higher-priority orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells.
To prioritize the wells for inclusion in NYWWPI well-plugging projects, the Division uses a scoring rubric that assigns numeric values to various aspects of each well (e.g., location, construction, proximity to sensitive receptors) and then sums the individual values to establish a total score for each well. Higher-scoring wells represent greater potential threats, and those wells are given priority for plugging under the NYWWPI. Consistent with Department practice for all ECL 23 well-plugging operations, the land surface around each well is restored to match adjacent areas.
In 2014, nine (9) shallow gas wells located in the City of Rome in Oneida County were selected as the first wells to be plugged under the NYWWPI. Two contracts were developed: one for a single well located just inside the northwest corner of the Rome municipal boundary in an area known as the Rome Sand Plains; and a second for 8 (eight) wells located in the city proper. The gas wells involved with these two projects were drilled and completed between the 1890s and 1930s in the Trenton formation at depths ranging from 800 feet to 1,000 feet. As the city grew over time, the wells were disregarded by the local population and became parts of residential, commercial, or recreational properties.
The eight-well project, termed the "Rome Wells," consisted of two wells along the western edge of the Mohawk River, one well on a senior residence property, one well inside a concrete housing along a wall of a commercial block building, two wells in Wright-Hazelton Park, one well at a condemned residential structure slated for demolition, and one well along the entranceway of a landscaping business. The one-well project, termed the "Brandy Brook Well," resulted in the plugging of one of the worst (i.e., highest scoring) wells in the state. This well was leaking gas, and brine had been flowing freely to the land surface for decades, discharging to Brandy Brook and resulting in the denudation of over an acre of land. The well had been set aflame by vandals many times over the years, and Department staff had responded to complaints associated with it on numerous occasions. Prior Department efforts to plug the well, which included attempts to enlist the aid of state and federal legislators, were unsuccessful. The plugging of this well and the restoration of the surrounding land surface are a great success story for the NYWWPI.
In the figure above, Image 1 (top left) is a November 2011 depiction of the aerial extent of brine burn surrounding the Brandy Brook well in the Rome Sand Plains, prior to the NYWWPI. The denuded area surrounding the well is the result of high salinity brine continuously discharging to the surface from the well. Image 2 (top right) is the same aerial image taken in May 2015, after the well was plugged and the site was reclaimed. Images 3 (bottom left) and 4 (bottom right) are pre-plugging and post-reclamation photographs, respectively, taken at the site.