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Agencies grapple with locating, plugging abandoned wells

Jan. 18—ANDERSON — The first time Ted Shideler happened upon a well, he was a 20-year-old college student exploring the countryside after working a late shift at a call center.

It was a flowing artesian well near the unincorporated town of Granville in northern Delaware County. Positioned between two boulders, the well and its flowing water made it seem like the rocks themselves were erupting with the liquid.

"I felt as though I had stumbled upon a biblical miracle," Shideler wrote in a blog post in 2022. "It was a life-changing experience, and one that I will never forget."

Shideler recounted the story to explain how his fascination with abandoned wells — specifically, tracking and mapping their locations — came to be.

"They kind of tie us (back) to the gas boom era," said Shideler, a Muncie resident who works as a production planner and serves as a board member with the Delaware County Historical Society. "They're part of our history."

Some of them, however, are also objects of concern for state and federal legislators who, urged by environmental advocates, are supporting bills that would enable states to accelerate the process of locating and plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.

Across the country, orphaned wells number in the hundreds of thousands, according to some estimates. States reported about 126,000 documented orphaned wells on state and private land in 2021, the last year for which data is available. But the Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are as many as 3.7 million abandoned wells in the U.S.

The agency categorizes many of those wells as "undocumented," meaning complete records — which may include precise location and verification of their existence — are missing. Also known as "legacy wells," many of them were drilled in the mid-to-late 1800s and likely were abandoned before any regulatory programs were put in place.

In Indiana, the state's inventory of abandoned wells in need of remediation numbers nearly 1,500, according to the Indiana Geological Survey. Shideler and others lament the patchwork of records tracking their locations, noting that much of the data is outdated and far from precise.

"I think they've imported the data from older surveys, so many times the coordinates are approximate," he said. "It wouldn't help somebody looking to remediate those."

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November 2021, included $4.7 billion in federal grants to allow states to start plugging wells. The law created new programs in several states, including Indiana. However, applying for those grants in some cases has been cumbersome, according to a group of senators who have introduced a bill in Congress aimed at streamlining the process.

Led by Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, the effort to pass the Orphan Well Grant Flexibility Act faces uncertainty in the new Congress, even though the bill is drawing bipartisan support.

"Bureaucratic red tape has hindered our ability to put those funds to good use and get to work," said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas.

Few studies have been done to examine the identity and quantity of chemicals that can be released into groundwater by orphaned or abandoned wells. But, experts say, unplugged or improperly plugged wells can leak contaminants — including methane and other pollutants — into surrounding soil and groundwater.

An estimated 14 million people in the U.S. live within half a mile of an orphaned well, according to a McGill University study commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Abandoned oil wells pose an overlooked yet serious threat to local communities' ground and water resources," Braun said. "This bill cuts the red tape and allows states to fast-track remediation of these orphaned wells, which will ultimately protect the residents that live by them."

Unlike their counterparts in some of those states, officials in Indiana have had minimal difficulty accessing those funds, according to Marty Benson, assistant director of the Division of Communications for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"The Indiana Department of Natural Resources current maintains a catalog of more than 900 orphaned or abandoned wells across Indiana," Benson said in an email.

He added that the state has a goal of plugging at least 350 of those wells by the end of September 2024.

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.